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Clinton deserves praise for his call to altruism.

No speech in the Clinton campaign was more inspirational than the candidate's remarks at the University of Notre Dame last September. As president, Clinton didn't match it until his March 1 speech at Rutgers University. At both campuses, he issued calls for national service for college students.

At Notre Dame: "If we are truly to practice what we preach, Americans of every faith and viewpoint should come together to promote the common good." It was similar at Rutgers: "National service is nothing less than the American way to change America."

Clinton's effort to rally the young to altruism has created a debate that pits idealism against realism, as if the two are forever locked in conflict. Where's the money, ask realists, for the tuition-for-service program that Clinton is proposing: $389 million in scholarships for 25,000 students the first year and $3.4 billion for 100,000 by 1997. Realists say that Clinton's sweet talk ignores sour facts: There's no money for a new social program.

From that negative, despairing argument, Clinton is supposed to get the message: Don't even try. That means don't lead, just preside. The past 12 years witnessed two presiders in the White House. Most first-year college students today were in kindergarten when Ronald Reagan was elected and in fourth grade when he was reelected. They came into adolescence under a politician who tried nothing by way of linking government with national service. Instead of selflessness to others, he extolled self-enrichment.

Evidence suggests that the young weren't seduced either by Reagan's message of contempt for government or his disdain for altruism. The 1980s saw a surge in campus community-service programs, such as those Clinton praised at Notre Dame and Rutgers. Amnesty International chapters increased on campuses, as did those of Oxfam USA- Applications to the Peace Corps remained high, as they did for such private domestic programs as the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and the Lutheran Volunteer Corps.

Yet Clinton's philosophy of service represents intellectual newness to many in high school and college. President Kennedy's appeals to national service are seen as historical relics, known from books but not live on MTV as Clinton's. It wasn't a politician's celebrity that created support for the president at Notre Dame and Rutgers. Students saw in him someone with a positive message - put community interest above self-interest - that many professors and counselors at their schools bad been exposing them to all along: If you can't teach the illiterate, comfort the sick and handicapped or mend whatever and whoever is broken during your college years, then you're receiving a limited education.

Clinton deserves to be honored for taking a risk that he'll be able to raise the money for his program of national service. Critics in Congress with no greater agenda than to carp about ideas they were too dull-witted or timid to propose themselves now lie in wait for the president when he comes in with specifies. They will say Clinton's ideas are dangerous because they are romantic and utopian, a charge that ignores the thought of James Madison in 1788: "No theoretical checks - no form of government, can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea."

Some critics charge that Clinton is into bribery: tuition money for service. While the details are being worked out on how much money for what service, who complains that the U.S. Army entices recruits with as much as $20,000 toward a college tuition?

Why isn't it bribery when ROTC programs pay students to shine their boots occasionally and take gut courses in military lore? Nor is much alarm expressed over the most lavish enticement of all: a free ride at the military academies in exchange for a few years in uniform after graduation.

Clinton's Rutgers speech marked the 32nd anniversary of the Peace Corps. Kennedy's spirited message was repeated by Clinton: "Answer the call to service." In The Bold Experiment, a history of the Peace Corps by Gerard Rice, one of those who responded to Kennedy's call explained why: "I'd never done anything political, patriotic or unselfish because nobody ever asked me to. Kennedy asked."

So has Clinton.

Colman McCarthy is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post.
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Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 26, 1993
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