Fool's courage, otherwise known as gall or chutzpah, is on neon display in the current preachings of William F. Buckley Jr. on national service. He's for it. "Call it, broadly, a debt to civilization," he intones in his book "Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe Our Country." He believes we are under obligation to pay "a debt to the 'fatherland' -- the nation-state into which we were born, or to which we repaired."
Here's a moneyed and propertied patrician who in the pages of his magazine, the National Review, has slavered for decades on behalf of reactionary politicians whose policies have helped cause the despair and suffering that Buckley now wants to enlist the rest of us to go ease or eliminate.
It was Buckley's hero Ronald Reagan -- ever lionized and all but canonized in the National Review -- who looked upon civil servants with contempt. Except for the poor, no one was trashed more by Reagan than the citizens who worked for the government. That they might have done so out of a sense of service was irrelevant. "I used to fantasize," said Reagan in 1979, "what it would be like if everyone in government would quietly slip away and close the doors and disappear ... I think that life would go on ... and we would get along a lot better than we think."
If Reagan's message, consistently applauded by Buckley, was that government is the problem and therefore no one owes his or her country anything, what is Buckley's claim to be popping off at this late hour in his life as the herald of altruism?
Instead of being an intellectual dabbler in the subject of service, why isn't he doing it and then telling us about it? He has published books, in prose that coagulates into thick streams of self-absorption, on his pleasures as a yachtsman. If Buckley has ever sailed off as a volunteer to a soup kitchen, or AIDS hospice, or homeless shelter or classroom, and has been doing it consistently for years, then the time has come to write of those experiences. It would display that service to others is a personal activity of his, not just another idea to run through his terminal before he tacks to the next wind of fashion, heading for the next gallant cause.
This book would have been the place for Buckley to describe his hands-on experiences. No one would take it as boasting. All that's offered in "Gratitude" is a childhood tale about his days at a rich-kid boarding school in Dutchess County, N.Y. It had a headmaster who believed in exposing his young elites to a touch of community service, the school's motto being "Non sibi sed cunctis" -- "Not for oneself, but for all." Young Buckley, son of a buccaneer oilman, was placed in charge of the student bank. His main service was occasionally holding banking hours to cash checks and "balance the account of the Strong Box, as it was called."
Now the former money-changer, after a dilettante adulthood of upper-class hedonism and serving as American capitalism's writer-in-residence, comes forward to announce: "National service, like gravity, is something we could accustom ourselves to, and grow to love." But of course! Take it from Capt. Bill at the yacht club. Cashing those prep-school checks was of an unforgettable intensity to match that of Mother Teresa's washing the wounds of lepers.
Those who do the daily work of community service, either as volunteers themselves or as creators and organizers of service programs, don't need the high-toned prattling of a late-on-the-scene Buckley to help their causes. College campuses have more community-service programs than ever, with no help from conservative America, which ridicules the volunteers as young leftist do-gooders.
The National Society for Internships and Experiential Education is a Raleigh, N.C., organization that has been helping colleges and other nonprofit groups to set up and operate service programs since 1971. Its acting director, Sally Migliore, reports a steady and strong growth throughout the 1980s in college community-service programs: "We are seeing an increase at all levels, even in grade schools."
A current example of both the boom in college community-service efforts and the willingness of students to get involved is the Best Buddies program. On 67 campuses with 1,200 students enrolled, it brings together college students and people with mental retardation in sharing relationships. Best Buddies was begun three years ago by Anthony Shriver, then a Georgetown University undergraduate.
Idealists and self-givers who are volunteering for community service have ample role models or spokesmen besides William Buckley. They are found in every community in America, from those who perform the works of justice and peacemaking to others who can give only a few hours a week. They tend to stay quiet, preferring action to talking.