Before Laurence Leamer was the celebrated author of such seminal best sellers as “King of the Night” and “The Kennedy Women,” he was a young Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal.
As he poignantly recalled in a recent speech, “I was posted in a tiny village in the eastern hills, two days from a road. And there I began to think of something other than myself. I learned to help people and reach out to the world with a helping hand, and I became a man I had never been…
“I have lived on the residue of that spirit for my entire life.”
But like about 195,000 Peace Corps volunteers who have served as American missionaries for peace and democracy since President John F. Kennedy launched the program in 1961, Leamer quickly grasps the power and influence the group has had making America stronger and the world a safer place.
This week, a House subcommittee is set to consider a move that could transform the Peace Corps into a major global force once again — and it's getting some surprising support from Republicans.
In the Senate, Republicans Orrin Hatch of Utah, Kit Bond of Missouri, Bob Corker of Tennessee, and Dick Lugar of Indiana support the move, Leamer said, while Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois is among the GOP members backing it in the House.
The Peace Corps was one of the brightest corners of Kennedy’s vision of Camelot. It was created at the height of East-West tensions during the Cold War, and Kennedy envisioned an army of a million volunteers marching to “create a new world of understanding and hope.”
In 1966, at the top of its form, there were 15,000 volunteers in the Peace Corps. Now, just 7,600 are spread around a world that has nearly doubled in population since those heady days when the Corps enjoyed iconic status with Americans.
When President Barack Obama promised during his campaign to double the size of the Peace Corps by its 50th anniversary in 2011, Leamer and thousands of other former, present, and future volunteers sensed the dawn of a new era of greatness for the volunteer Corps.
But both the Peace Corps and the Obama administration came up short in the first tests of that new era, Leamer told Newsmax.
With the easygoing idealism of the campaign giving way to the grim pragmatics of managing a country in crisis mode, Obama trimmed his vision, electing to increase the Peace Corps budget only 10 percent – with a modest 20 percent increase in volunteers by 2012.
In all fairness, Leamer concedes, Obama may have found himself between a rock and a hard place as the Peace Corps leadership balked at doubling the volunteer corps by 2011. Leamer is working with Morepeacecorps.org and its national coordinator, Rajeev Goyal, to change all that, he said.
“Obama backed off his pledge,” Leamer told Newsmax. “What we’ve been doing in the House is to push for $450 million — not the $373 million in the administration budget that would not allow for a better, bolder, bigger Peace Corps.
“In the House Authorization Subcommittee, we put enormous pressure on Chairman [Howard] Berman, and for whatever reasons, and I think this former Vista volunteer did it for the right reasons, he came through with an amendment giving the $450 million.”
Leamer said he’s fairly certain that the Democrats on the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, led by Chairwoman Nita Lowey of New York, will vote the $450 million on Wednesday.
Appearing on MSNBC’s “Hardball” show tonight Lowey told host Chris Matthews she’s fully behind the measure.
“I am going to, and you are the first to announce it, increase it to $450 million , which will expand the Peace Corps to 20 more countries. We now have just a little under 8000 volunteers around the world and I am thrilled to be in a position where I can do this.”
Asked by Matthews, himself a former Peace Corps volunteer, if this will do what President Obama said he’d do, Rep. Lowey said she believes that the money being put into the Peace Corps puts the U.S. “on an important glide path.
“I recently met with the Peace Corps in Ghana, and to see these young people so enthusiastic - they are exactly what we have to do to expand the respect for Americans around the world and it is an important part of our national security,” she explained.
The Peace Corps program is a bargain, Rep. Lowey noted. “The Peace Corps costs everybody in the United States about a $1.23” and the added appropriation will barely increase that sum.
But Lowey warned that the House action doesn’t make the increase a done deal. The Senate will also have their say. “But the peace Corps budget is 1 percent of the foreign policy budget of the United States, which is 1 percent of the entire budget. So we're one percent of one percent. And for the good that we do around the world it is extraordinary.”
Leamer doesn’t believe that Democrats will drop the ball and embarrass Obama on this key campaign pledge.
“Tactically, they (Democrats) could wait and put it in at the next step in the process, but they want to do it now because they are terrified that the Republican minority will offer their own amendment for the $450 million,” Leamer said. “But this is the irony of the story — as far as I know, the Republicans may be too beaten down to figure this out.
“It’s a no-brainer,” he added. “What you have to do in this [overall] $49 billion bill is to take something out in one place if you want to put it somewhere else. There’s lots of Democratic fat in this bill. If the Democrats fail to come up with the $450 million, all the Republicans have to do is put in an amendment taking it away from some Democratic boondoggle and watch as their counterparts have a draconian choice.
“The Republicans in the House don’t understand that they are foolish to let this turn into Obama’s Peace Corps, and Obama is so smart that eventually that’s what he’ll try to do. He’ll come swooping down and embrace it,” Leamer warned.
“If the Republicans were smart, they would push for the $450 million and send it over to the Senate where that would create big problems for the Democrats."
Leamer told Newsmax about a couple of Democratic lawmakers he suggests should be leading the way for the Peace Corps revival:
“Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, one of the lions of the Senate, has some profound questions about how the Peace Corps is being run. They not only deserve to be answered, but they must be answered or he is going to oppose an increase in money for the Peace Corps.”
Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, a returned volunteer himself and a crucial player in the Senate, has appeared to be sitting on the sidelines doing nothing. "But he may have a bill combining both growth and reform that he is about to spring and that could change the whole dynamic of this struggle, bringing in all kinds of support from Republicans and Democrats.”
However, the extra cash alone is no silver bullet for what ails the Peace Corps, Leamer said. A bold new Corps needs a bold new director and deputy director.
This new blood must reform the organization from one concerned with safety and sinecures to a key player on the stage of the 21st century, he said. Case in point: There are no volunteers in the villages of Pakistan. In fact, only two Arab countries have volunteers on the ground.
Of course, the mold that intrigues everyone is that of Sargent Shriver, the original director of the Peace Corps. This energetic visionary went on to found such programs as Head Start, VISTA, Job Corps, Community Action, Upward Bound, Foster Grandparents, and the Special Olympics. He engineered President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.
In spite of all his accomplishments, Shriver denigrated what his Peace Corps had accomplished in a November 2001 speech at Yale University.
“Our present world cries out for a new Peace Corps — a vastly improved, expanded, and profoundly deeper enterprise ... I’m not defending the old Peace Corps – I’m attacking it! We didn’t go far enough! Our dreams were large, but our actions were small. We never really gave the goal of ‘World Wide Peace’ an overwhelming commitment. Nor did we establish a clear, inspiring vision for attaining it.”
Like the legendary Sargent Shriver, Leamer doesn’t want to see the Obama administration squander what he sees as a chance to do something great and meaningful and lasting.
On June 13, he joined Tim Shriver, Sargent's son and the CEO of Special Olympics International, at a rally in Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C. That spring afternoon, hundreds of former Peace Corps volunteers came together to remind President Obama of his campaign pledge to build a Peace Corps of 16,000 volunteers by 2011.
The rally culminated with a march to the White House, led by Shriver, with the 22-woman Brazilian drumming group Batala providing the stepping-off beat.
Addressing the enthusiastic throng, Leamer got up-close-and-personal with other Peace Corps veterans: “For the few months that I have been working on the campaign, I have been renewed and reborn. I have regained my soul. For the second time in my life, the Peace Corps has saved me.
“Walking the halls of Congress, I have seen the miracle of our democracy, that anyone can petition our elected leaders. And if you enter those offices with the name and power of the Peace Corps behind you, you are listened to. You are respected. And you can help change history.
“We are going to get that $450 million because of your efforts, and we will double our own efforts in the Senate and we will get it there too. We will get it because we are Peace Corps. And we do not stop. We do not give up. With our united power we are unbeatable."
Finally, he invoked the name of the first director, Sargent Shriver, who has Alzheimer’s disease and could not attend.
“I see Sarge Shriver telling us we are doing the right thing in building this bold new Peace Corps. I see the flags of the 137 Peace Corps countries. I see millions of supporters. I see America. I see the world.”
Leamer said the rally was in no way a protest against President Obama – it was more a celebration of the chief executive’s vision and understanding of just how the Peace Corps fits in the vital machinery that will see the nation through the age of terrorism.
Indeed, Leamer reminds folks frequently of some recent Obama insights.
In his commencement address at Arizona State University, the president let the graduating seniors know that the Peace Corps still is very much on his mind.
“We’ve become accustomed to the title of ‘military superpower,’ forgetting the qualities that got us there — not just the power of our weapons, but the discipline and valor and the code of conduct of our men and women in uniform,” Obama said.
“The Marshall Plan, and the Peace Corps, and all those initiatives that show our commitment to working with other nations to pursue the ideals of opportunity and equality and freedom that have made us who we are — that’s what made us a superpower.”
More Conversation with Leamer
Newsmax: So what’s the very latest news from Capitol Hill?
Leamer: We’re very close, but we’re not taking anything for granted. I just would love to see the Republicans stand up in support.
Newsmax: Even that $450 million figure seems so small. All the money that is tossed down a rat hole these days — and we are being miserly with something that can deliver more bang for the buck than all the bombs in the world.
Leamer: I’ve lived all over the world, and I’ve seen the squandering of so much foreign aid. That has to stop, and the Peace Corps has to be held to the highest standards. Rajeev [Goyal] and I are not in this for the short term. I’ve told Chairwoman Lowey and I’ve told Senator Leahy that we’re going to be just as relentless and tough on the Peace Corps once they get the funding, making sure that they are true to the vision of what the Peace Corps can be. And if they squander it, we’ll be back on the Hill next year blowing the whistle.
Newsmax: Have Peace Corps volunteers had it rough and ready over the years?
Leamer: More than a few have died and countless others have had serious illnesses. I had five kinds of worms — that should help recruitment. But life is tough and challenging, and danger is part of the equation. Take that away and what do you have? Americans love and need challenge. They’re ready.
Newsmax: You and I remember the exciting days when the Peace Corps was first formed. What has happened to take it so far from the heart and minds of younger Americans?
Leamer: What’s strange is that some people don’t even know it exists. Every president says he’s going to double the size, comes over and pats the Peace Corps on its tousled head and does nothing. Well, that blonde hair is dyed and there’s a bald spot, and the institution has to be revitalized from top to bottom. The new director has to work the Hill, and the PR people have got to get the story out — and it’s got to be a dramatic new story.
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