Big Names To Attend Summit On Volunteers

Powell To Lead Meeting On Needs Of Youngsters

April 25, 1997|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Powell Doctrine asserts that, whenever the United States takes military action, it should do so with overwhelming force.

Although his weapons are now celebrities and presidents rather than tanks and missiles, retired Gen. Colin L. Powell is bringing the same guiding principle to bear as he sets his sights on the nation's volunteer spirit and commands an operation of colossal proportions.

From Sunday to Tuesday in Philadelphia, the former joint chiefs chairman will lead a conference to promote volunteer service in the private sector -- with elaborate staging and an all-star lineup to rival a political convention.

Along with the Clintons and the Gores, the Presidents' Summit for America's Future -- intended to focus on young people -- will be attended by former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush, as well as Nancy Reagan filling in for her ailing husband; 30 governors; 90 mayors, including Kurt L. Schmoke of Baltimore; scores of corporate chief executives and stars such as Oprah Winfrey, Tony Bennett and John Travolta.

The goal of the high-voltage gathering, organized largely by the White House and Powell's office, is to gain specific commitments from corporations and nonprofit organizations for resources to help youngsters -- everything from after-school programs for kids to paid leave for employees to act as tutors.

Critics see the summit as merely a glitzy public relations bonanza for politicians and corporate figures looking to polish their images.

Commitments made

But even if little is accomplished in Philadelphia, the power of the Powell persona has already resulted in commitments for contributions from 240 organizations.

Powell says his aim, as general chairman of the summit and a new organization that will follow up on the commitments made there, is to provide resources -- such as adult mentors, safe places to learn and health care essentials such as vaccines -- for 2 million youngsters by the year 2000.

"The reality of this great land, with all of its promise and with all of its wealth and treasures, is that there are too many young people who are losing some hope, starting to wonder if America has a future for them," Powell told reporters. "The answer we're going to give at the summit this weekend is, `Yes. America's promise is that there is a future for you.' "

Summit planners are hoping that individuals as well as organizations will heed the call.

"What we're trying to do is make volunteering the thing to do, something to boast about," said Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who is leading the state's delegation.

What planners can already boast about is an event that is churning through the national media machine. Last week, two news magazines ran cover stories on volunteerism. Some Sunday morning talk shows will be broadcasting from Philadelphia. And reporters, who have been deluged with phone calls and faxes regarding the event, are swarming there in large numbers.

Why? In large measure, it's the Powell mystique. And he knows that perhaps more than anyone. While he insists he is no more enthusiastic about a presidential run now than he was in 1995, he has left the door open enough to keep the spotlight on him.

Political agenda denied

Although some have speculated that the summit is a Powell political springboard, he maintains "there is no other agenda associated with my participation" than his commitment to America's youth.

The 60-year-old Republican has been portraying himself as nonpolitical. "The role that I am playing is to stay out of the public political debate," he said. "Because once you do that, you spend all of your time taking a position on every little piece of legislation that comes along."

With a reprise of the Powell-mania of two years ago and the summit's show-biz veneer -- Winfrey is the host, for instance -- cynicism about the event is high.

This week, community advocate Jeremy Rifkin, a member of the summit's executive steering committee, sent a letter to Powell saying that he had grown "increasingly alarmed" about the tone of the event.

"I would not like to see the Presidents' Summit reduced to a self-congratulatory, feel-good event dominated by corporate public relations and political posturing among our nation's elected officials," he wrote.

Marian L. Heard, chief executive of the steering committee, defended the gathering, saying, "We believe this goes far beyond public relations. Every single commitment has measurable goals, can be quantified and is attached to a specific timetable."

For instance, LensCrafters has promised to provide 1 million needy people, especially children, with free vision care by the year 2003; Time Warner has pledged 1 million volunteer hours of literacy tutoring by 1998; Timberland is donating $1 million plus 5,000 pairs of boots to an AmeriCorps program, and is offering employees up to one week of paid leave to devote to community service.

`Pizzazz' deemed necessary

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