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Service to Country is Presidential

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

On September 11, 2008 in New York City, Senator John McCain will share his vision on a topic he has lived – service to country. And he will share it on the anniversary of a day seven years ago when many others unexpectedly lived it as well. He will not be alone.

Service to country is an issue that transcends party, religion, race, ethnicity, age and gender, and is an American value as old as our nation. It is fitting then, that in the heat of a presidential election campaign, Senator McCain will be followed the next day by Caroline Kennedy, a Democrat who has endorsed his rival, Senator Barack Obama.

Both McCain and Kennedy will give voice to a growing American movement that includes dozens of leaders, from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Newark Mayor Corey Booker, from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, from Senator Orrin Hatch to Senator Ted Kennedy, and from the AARP to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

What brings them together is the ServiceNation Summit, which asks all American to rededicate themselves to the service of their country and calls upon the next President and Congress to expand the opportunities for Americans to serve in their communities, across America, or in villages around the world.

ServiceNation wants to remind Americans of our currency of citizenship – that service is exchanged freely in return for rights, benefits and protections that America provides to all of us.

In a book entitled Gratitude: Reflections on what we owe to our country, famed conservative thinker William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote that “republican citizenship incites every man to be a knight.” Through service, proclaimed Buckley, conservatives can “open [their] minds to something other than a statist program, or one that lodges in the state the kind of power conservatives have been taught, at great historical expense, to husband for social uses.” Service harnesses the power of individual citizens, and leverages the power of grassroots action, to address chronic public policy problems: helping struggling students graduate from high school, mentoring young Americans who need a guiding example, responding to natural disasters, and infusing our public education system with energy and idealism. Expanding service opportunities is not about expanding government, but increasing the capacity for citizens to take action to help each other.

Alexis de Tocqueville once observed that to prevent America from becoming a “dim and dubious shape in the eyes of the citizens,” its people must “take a zealous interest in the affairs of township, country, and of the whole state.” That is precisely the meaning of citizen service.

From military service to traditional volunteers in neighborhoods, from full-time national service in AmeriCorps programs like Habitat for Humanity, City Year and Teach for America to Peace Corps volunteers and Volunteers for Prosperity who tackle HIV/AIDS and malaria in Africa, from Citizen Corps emergency responders and medical reserve corps professionals to veterans who return home and continue their service to disadvantaged children, America can empower citizens rather than bureaucracies to address our nation’s toughest problems. Service programs fill the critical gap between government and the individual citizen, performing services big government bureaucracies and the private sector cannot or will not, while also teaching participants about good citizenship. There’s nothing more Republican (or American) than that.

Expanding service opportunities will require more money and more attention from the next President, but it does not need big new bureaucracies, and it should not bust the budget. Studies show that service programs provide a positive return on investment, often 100% or more. Any of us would make that kind of investment in the marketplace, especially if the returns to us also meant a return to the country. Moreover, following the lead of a new generation of social entrepreneurs, service programs can use public-private partnerships to build capacity, and to engage more Americans in service. Alan Khazei, co-founder of CityYear, a successful program that engages young people from diverse backgrounds in service to needy communities, has suggested that a venture capital approach be taken to nonprofit service organizations, investing those which beneficiaries say work. The federal Corporation for National and Community Service already uses similar methodology, which has helped to spur greater accountability across the nonprofit sector. And new measures of civic health, just as the country has measures of economic health, have been put in place by the White House’s Freedom Corps. These efforts provide high returns on investment, help people in need, and promote good citizenship. America is rediscovering itself and finding value in resurrecting old traditions. It is no surprise then that a growing number of Americans are joining the effort to promote service as a way to bring us together as a nation, and to better address the challenges we face together. Through service, Senator McCain has written, Americans “come to know the obligations and rewards of active citizenship.” It is just that kind of active citizenship that will bring Senator McCain to the ServiceNation Summit on September 11, and will, with the next President’s vision, unleash the talents and creativity of millions of additional Americans to serve their nation.

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