On the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama took the day off from active presidential campaigning to discuss how Americans can better serve their county. The two opponents, whose campaigns have recently taken on a contentious air, were in alignment on a number of issues, including the need for greater civilian engagement at home and abroad.
McCain and Obama were interviewed at Columbia University for the opening of the bipartisan, cross-generational ServiceNation Summit that continues today. The summit brings together 600 American leaders from government, academia, the arts, business and nonprofits to begin a national dialogue on how best to restore the American tradition of public service.
McCain and Obama said that service and civic engagement would be central to their administrations. In a conversation that was friendly and relaxed, they separately fielded questions posed by co-moderators Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time, and Judy Woodruff, PBS senior correspondent with “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”
Both said that Americans came together and shared a common purpose in the days after 9/11. “We probably still have an opportunity to develop a concrete plan of action,” said McCain. Obama agreed, saying that “the country yearns for that sense of unity and purpose. We’re at one of these defining moments. Americans have a right to expect leadership from Washington, but they have to be part of the solution, too.”
Both candidates acknowledged that Americans are frustrated and ready for change. “Eighty-four percent of Americans think we’re heading in the wrong direction,” said McCain. “This is an opportunity to lead the nation and ask for more service.” But that doesn’t mean compulsory national service, he said, ”because when you compel someone to do something, it’s in contradiction to the fundamental principle of wanting to serve.”
McCain also expressed opposition to the idea of corporations providing paid leave for employees who perform volunteer service. “It’s great if companies want to do it,” he said, “but I wouldn’t force that kind of thing.”
Generally, McCain was for less government involvement and more efforts by private enterprises and faith-based organizations. “Let’s not have the government do things that private industry can do in this arena,” he said. “Volunteerism starts at a grassroots level. Let’s not stifle what’s already going on in organizations that have no dependence on the federal government.” Nor would McCain raise community service to a Cabinet level in his administration, something that Obama proposes.
Both candidates said they support increasing the size of the military and recognized the twin challenges of recruitment and retention. And both said that ROTC should be invited back to campuses like Columbia’s—Obama’s alma mater—where it has been absent since the 1960s.
Obama spoke about his national service plan, which includes service commitments from high school students and financial grants for college students in return for volunteering after graduation. He noted that Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, will announce at the summit today bipartisan legislation to create a national service act. “I want to restore that sense of mutual responsibility that has been responsible for so much of our progress as a country,” he said.
Obama cited John F. Kennedy as his model in the area of civic engagement. “He looked out into the horizon and saw new frontiers where America needed to go and then developed structures to tap into the idealism. Change happens from the bottom up because people imagine a world as it should be and are willing to put in the hard work to change the country block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood.”
The forum opened with welcoming remarks by Laysha Ward, of Target Foundation, and Bill Novelli, CEO of AARP. “Change brought about by active participation in our democracy will determine what kind of America we will have in the future,” Novelli said. “Our communities and our country need us more than ever.”
Four organizations are coordinating ServiceNation: Be the Change Inc., City Year, Civic Enterprises, and Points of Light Institute. A grassroots Day of Action is planned for Sept. 27 that will involve millions of activists participating in more than 2,200 volunteer events in all 50 states.
Cathie Gandel is a freelance writer based in New York.
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