I have put my career as an author on the back shelf for the past few months and have been working fulltime with Rajeev Goyal, the national coordinator of Morepeacecorps.org, to reform and enlarge the Peace Corps.
It has been an exhilarating experience testifying to the genius of American democracy and a strangely cautionary tale about how our most sacred institutions can become distorted.
Our campaign began in the House, where the concerted efforts of many supporters prompted the people’s body to vote $450 million for fiscal year 2010, enough to begin the building of a bold new Peace Corps. As soon as that victory seemed secure, the struggle moved to the Senate, where our goal was to get the same robust appropriation or at least something far beyond the anemic $373 in the administration bill that would lead to no reform and no growth.
The name “Peace Corps” doesn’t have the magical cache it had nearly half a century ago when President John F. Kennedy founded the innovative agency. But it still is one of the most unsullied institutions in American political life and we were welcomed in most offices.
My first official meeting with a senator in his office occurred a few weeks ago when I went in to see Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri. The halls of the Senate office buildings are deathly silent, far removed from the cacophony of democracy.
When I entered the senator's office, I saw the rarest of sights in the Senate: living, breathing constituents waiting to meet their senator. They were dressed for tourism on a hot Washington morning in shorts, flip-flops, and other practical clothes.
I was shoehorned in between a large series of meet-and-greets, and although Bond could have been preoccupied with this weekly ritual, he immediately started talking about the peaceful role for Americans in the world. He began with a story I had never heard before, a singularly inspiring tale about how he had worked to get funding for a pilot program of farmers in the Missouri National Guard to work in Afghanistan teaching farmers how to improve their lot.
“I had a heck of a time getting the few million dollars from their Democrat-controlled Senate, but I finally got it,” Bond said, wiping his forehead in feigned relief. “And you know what when (Afghan) President (Hamid) Karzai came to Washington, the one positive thing he talked about was our Missouri farmers and all the good they did.”
Those were National Guardsmen, but in this bold new Peace Corps, they just as easily could have been volunteers. President Bush often is blamed for the deterioration of the Peace Corps in the last decade, but the real villain is not the former president but 9/ll.
In those first tense months after the unprecedented attacks, Americans were terrified that there would soon be another violent assault. The Peace Corps was in a particularly vulnerable spot, with volunteers spread around the world, including countries that harbored their own potential terrorists. The Peace Corps became obsessed with security and turned away from strategically important but potentially dangerous countries. The country directors started living behind walls as thick and high as those that protected our ambassadors. As right as that may have been for security, it began to isolate the administration from the volunteer.
Bond is a man who knows that life is dangerous and does not run away from it. He understands that, if the world is to be safe for all one day it must be dangerous now for some — not only our forces attempting to root out terrorism with the weapons of war but also our volunteers walking forward carrying the implements of peace, rooting out the enemies of freedom by showing the true soul of America.
Philosopher William James argued in his brilliant essay that created the philosophical underpinnings for the Peace Corps that there was hunger in the young male psyche for the challenges and dangers of war, but that hunger could be reborn in a peaceful war against nature. That has been transformed in the Peace Corps into a peaceful war for the social and economic development of the poor people’s of the world.
I served in Nepal from 1964 to 1966. I lived in a village two days from a road. At one point I was so sick I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get help. I left America a boy. I returned a man.
I left Bond's office that day knowing that, above everyone else in the Senate, we had the supporter we needed. When I was a volunteer, the Peace Corps occasionally was tainted with a paternalistic liberalism, but this bold new Peace Corps must be an agency supported as much by conservatives and liberals. It must use the tools of entrepreneurship where that makes sense. It must develop carefully tailored programs of technical and agricultural advice.
As I walked out of the Russell Building, I thought to myself that we need Bond’s ideas as much as we need his vote.
Our problem with successfully developing this bold new Peace lies in the two most unlikely places imaginable: the White House and the office of one of the most liberal senators in America. During Barack Obama's presidential campaign, he repeatedly evoked the image of a new Peace Corps doubled in size by its 50th anniversary in 2011. People voted for him in part because of that pledge. Hundreds of returned volunteers marched before him Inauguration Day carrying the 139 flags of the Peace Corps countries, each person anticipating the birth of what would truly be Obama’s Peace Corps.
For some inexplicable reason, the young president has reneged on that promise. While tripling the size of the domestic volunteers, Obama’s first budget gives the Peace Corps enough neither to reform nor to expand to countries such as Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country.
The crucial official at OMB admitted that his agency made a mistake and initially offered to correct it. But a week later, he said he could not change it. This probably was because the administration does not want to admit it made a mistake.
President Bush believed it was a mistake to admit a mistake. That attitude was the larger mistake. So it may well prove to be with Obama. The president has exacerbated his initial mistake by not appointing a new director, making our quest for robust appropriations even more difficult.
The administration has remained neutral to our campaign, and our main nemesis is Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations. I would like to write that the liberal senator opposes an expansion of the Peace Corps as a matter of principle, but I’m convinced that it more a matter of personal pique and pride.
During the Bush years, Leahy said the serious questions he wanted to ask the agency were not answered, and the Washington bureaucrats treated this important elected official with arrogant disdain. I am sure that is true, but that is no reason to treat not only the departing officials but also the entire Peace Corps and its hundreds of thousands of supporters with the same kind of arrogant disdain. He had gone so far as to say that, if the Peace Corps does not improve, he will shut it down.
Although Leahy vowed to fund the Peace Corps with only the anemic $373 million, we were able to convince most of the members of the crucial appropriations subcommittee to support robust funding. Then on the eve of the crucial Senate hearing, they all caved in to pressure put on them by the powerful chairman, and we were left with only one senator standing up for a bold new Peace Corps: Senator Bond.
Bond wrote a powerful letter to Leahy and Sen. Judd Gregg, the ranking Republican, calling for the full $450 million appropriation to send volunteers out to strategically important countries like Indonesia where they would be part of what he calls “Smart Power.” Then in the subcommittee, he alone spoke up in support of bold new Peace Corps.
“The need for the Peace Corps has never been more important,” he told his colleagues. “Since the 1960s, Peace Corps volunteers have fostered lasting, positive relationships between the United States and nations across the globe through grass roots. It is important that the Senate conferees work with our House counterparts to provide the additional resources the Peace Corps needs to accomplish their mission. This is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.”
You can’t build a bold new Peace Corps with timid old leaders, and Bond is the kind of champion we need. In his last months in the Senate, Bond is helping to build not only a new Peace Corps but also a new kind of Republican Party, positive in its outlook, creative in its thinking, and daring in its proposals.
Laurence Leamer is the author of best-sellers such as “King of the Night,” which is a biography of Johnny Carson, and books about the Kennedys.
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