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You’re Gonna Have to Serve Somebody

During his final, frantic—and ultimately wildly successful—15-states-in-five-days campaign spree, President Bush repeatedly exhorted Americans to be “willing to serve something greater than ourselves.” But, in truth, it’s pretty obvious he didn’t really expect us to listen. As Bill Maher writes in his just released book When You Ride Alone, You Ride With bin Laden: “We were asked to do very little and we responded. That’s the bargain we tacitly make with our presidents: We won’t ask too much of you, if you don’t ask too much of us.”

And true to form, in speech after speech, the president has been asking very little of us. At one stop he recommended, “Be a Boy Scout leader or a Girl Scout leader.” At another he suggested that Americans “put their arm around somebody who hurts and say ‘I love you. What can I do to help you? How can I make your life better?’ ” Unfortunately, he failed to mention what to do when the answer to that question is: “Take your damn arm off of me and get me some affordable health insurance!”

Now I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with being a Boy Scout leader or telling people that you love them (even when you don’t—by the way, Mr. President, I love you). Indeed, I’m all in favor of these things. But there is a world of difference between urging mild, spare-time charity and championing a cause that will transform our society. It’s the difference between flaccid, patronizing stump-speech rhetoric and invoking patriotism to rally us as a nation to a common mission.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy stood in front of a joint session of Congress and laid out a vision for the future: “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon.” He used his bully pulpit to gather the political will to meet a monumental challenge—and backed it up with financial muscle.

Eight years later, after a mobilization of resources, exceptionally talented people and that extremely American can-do quality, we achieved the science-fiction goal when Neil Armstrong bounced across the lunar surface. People, no doubt, still told each other “I love you,” but love doesn’t get you to the moon.

So what if President Bush were to use his newly won political power to do the same—to call on the American people to commit themselves to a large, collective purpose? There’s no shortage of needs. I have two that immediately come to mind.

He could borrow President Kennedy’s language and call on the nation to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of becoming completely independent of foreign oil.” Or he can call on the nation to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of closing the ever-widening gap between the children growing up with hope for the future and those growing up in despair.”

OK, I realize that, given the president’s oily background, there is probably very little chance of his choosing the first cause even though the cause of energy independence seems to offer plenty of opportunity for an oil industry willing to harken, no pun intended, back to its energetic wildcatting roots. But what about the second goal? After all, he and his wife have already shown an interest in the subject.

Last week, over 1,000 people gathered in Washington to celebrate 25 years of Communities in Schools (CIS), a remarkable organization that has turned around the lives of hundreds of thousands of at-risk children throughout the country.

Among the group’s high-profile supporters is First Lady Laura Bush, who has praised CIS as “a terrific model for people who want to make a difference. It’s an organization that has proven for 25 years that they can turn kids on to learning by turning them on to life.”

Bill Milliken, CIS’s founder, was himself a troubled kid growing up in Pittsburgh in the ’50s. He’s now putting into practice the national exhortation Bush has yet to make. “Our communities have been blown apart,” Milliken told me, “and we have kids running around looking for help. We’re responding to this by bringing caring adults into one central location—the schools—to meet the children’s unmet needs. Our work is based on the belief that programs don’t change kids—relationships do.”

Communities in Schools currently has over 45,000 volunteers working in 2,550 schools—putting in 1.8 million hours a year. Those are impressive numbers—until you consider the magnitude of the problem: There are over 96,000 public schools and roughly 13 million at-risk children.

And that’s where the power of the presidency comes in. We cannot go from where we are to where we need to be with individual acts of charity and touchy-feely speeches alone. To create the critical mass that will truly transform the lives of a generation of children, we need to make a Manhattan Project-level commitment of resources and resolve.

So let’s strike a new bargain with our leaders: We will expect a lot more of them and we’re ready for them to ask a lot more of us. President Bush claims to believe in the country. So why doesn’t he believe in us?

—Arianna Huffington

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