Since early childhood, we have heard presidents calling on the American people to give back to their country.
President John F. Kennedy awakened the nation to its civic responsibilities with two words: “Ask not.” Kennedy called on Americans to dedicate time in service to the country and world. His creation of the Peace Corps captured the ethos of that era.
Forty years later, President George W. Bush sought to build on “the gathering momentum of millions of acts of service and decency and kindness” among the American people in the wake of a national tragedy. After the 9/11 attacks, the president immediately created a vehicle for citizens to support response efforts at the three sites where Americans were killed. He started a fund dedicated to encouraging the health and welfare of Afghan children. He also asked every American to give at least two years in service to neighbor and nation. The administration added 25,000 AmeriCorps service positions — expanding the program 50 percent — and brought Peace Corps positions to their highest levels in four decades. Additionally, the White House created a citizen preparedness infrastructure to respond to disasters.
Other commanders in chief also called on Americans to serve. Abraham Lincoln stirred our “better angels” on the eve of the Civil War. Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, mobilizing 3 million unemployed men to save public lands from soil erosion and fires while supporting themselves and their families. Other presidents have extolled the virtues of volunteering and service. After a devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, President George W. Bush enlisted his father, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton to lead efforts that would raise more than $1 billion for the response.
Today, the United States faces a crisis unlike any in living memory: a global pandemic that is changing how every one of us lives. The country is in many respects shutting down, with people confined to their homes, schools shuttered, businesses closed and elderly Americans in care facilities isolated from loved ones. These restrictions come at a time of low social and institutional trust.
When President Trump was asked recently how he would calm Americans’ fears, he dismissed the question as “nasty.” His apparent disinterest in assuaging citizens’ fears makes him an anomaly among presidents.
In times of crisis, Americans expect our president to show empathy, to unite us and to ask us to help. Where idealism should be rooted, there is a hole at the heart of our nation’s coronavirus response.
To be sure, many of the usual ways we help one another are not viable amid social-distancing measures. But rather than sapping our collective spirit, the president should challenge our creativity.
What might a call to service look like during lockdown? Here are a few ideas: telling us that the virus can affect our health but not our resolve; encouraging people to use the Internet to volunteer, perhaps by tutoring or mentoring disadvantaged youths; arranging food deliveries to the elderly or needy; donating to charities; or simply reaching out to others to reduce stress. Medical professionals could be encouraged to join the Medical Reserve Corps and bring surge capacity to testing sites, hospitals and health clinics. The president could urge Congress to expand national service programs and provide emergency wage support to small businesses and nonprofits.
Others are championing these ideas, but no one else has the president’s reach and authority. He alone can summon the country to act in solidarity and encourage a continental nation to dispense grace and compassion in this unsettling time.
Fortunately, citizens are stepping up despite our gap in leadership. Health-care professionals are working around the clock to save others, many while risking their own lives. Other efforts: Feeding America is ensuring food banks feed children who rely on school meals and others in need; book clubs, prayer groups and businesses are sewing protective masks; City Year has a corps of young people tutoring schoolchildren online; and Special Olympics is offering an online “School of Strength” to promote fitness, exercise and connection from home.
In the absence of sympathetic, inspirational leadership, leadership is going to need to come from citizens in every sphere of life, united by a commitment to the common good.
Retired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who served our country for 34 years, likened most citizens’ love for country to an old movie line: “Is there not one thing in your life that is worth losing everything for?” We’re confident that the American people will rise to today’s challenge and once again ask not.