SOLOMON: Motherhood, Apple Pie and "Volunteerism"

Get ready for a heavy dose of hoopla about "volunteerism" at the end of this month, when we'll be seeing profuse media coverage of the Presidents' Summit for America's Future.For Bill Clinton, the summit in Philadelphia -- which he's co-hosting with George Bush -- is the political equivalent of a slam dunk. Fervent appeals for volunteers to save our young people are sure to generate plenty of cheers.With 2,000 delegates expected from around the country, the White House assumes that the news media will treat the spectacle with apple-pie reverence. After all, only a nitwit doubts that Americans should go out of their way to help each other.We've been here before. Remember President Bush's "Thousand Points of Light"?Near the close of the 1980s -- with much of the nation reeling from "trickle down" economics that subsidized the rich and undermined the rest of us -- Bush launched a major rhetorical drive to promote voluntary good deeds.Countless news stories boosted the volunteer theme. Typical was a Christian Science Monitor article published in November 1989 under the headline "A Thousand Points of Light to Shine."The Monitor breathlessly reported that Bush "will be asking every commercial establishment to join voluntarily in efforts to find solutions for such problems as illiteracy, dropouts, drug abuse, unwed teen pregnancy, youth delinquency and suicide, AIDS, homelessness, hunger, unemployment and loneliness."Then, as now, the man in the Oval Office was anxious to have it both ways -- cutting back on government aid to people in need while posing as a champion of compassion. In a country ablaze with grave crises, that's like the fire chief urging everyone to fill their squirt guns.Volunteerism is admirable. Across the United States, it involves many sincere people who want to help others. But it's no substitute for dependable, ongoing, government-funded programs with adequate budgets.Not a single officeholder in America would dream of depending on volunteerism to sustain local police departments or the U.S. armed forces. But somehow we're supposed to believe that hit-or-miss, woefully under-funded charity efforts are central to meeting the most basic human needs.Reliance on volunteerism means that the unfortunate in our society will remain at the mercy of the ebb and flow of meager charitable resources. This has been going on for a very long time.In retrospect -- despite the prodigious output of media blather and the abundant hot air from the Bush White House -- the thousand points of light were no match for the nation's millions of points of blight.Hardly a slacker when it comes to mobilizing behind hollow slogans, President Clinton now delights in pounding the bully pulpit for volunteerism. Rather than fighting to fulfill New Deal principles with strong federal programs for social uplift, he preaches that everyone should be a volunteer.These days, just about the only thing that President Clinton has in common with Franklin Delano Roosevelt is that he sometimes sits in a wheelchair.A week ago, Clinton lauded volunteerism as "the very American idea that we can meet our challenges, not through heavy-handed government or as isolated individuals, but as members of a true community -- all of us working together." Such words are cold comfort.For politicians and journalists alike, the great allure of volunteerism is that it seems to transcend political differences, leaving ideology behind. It's good -- period.But proclaiming that volunteerism can overcome deep-rooted social ills is profoundly ideological. It's the rough equivalent of telling people that they should figure out how to fix crumbling roads and bridges themselves, rather than expect help from the government.The Summit for America's Future -- featuring retired Gen. Colin Powell as well as Clinton and former presidents -- is bound to get big media play. But it promises to be much ado about next to nothing. In essence, Clinton and other summit leaders are fiddling with easy rhetoric while social problems burn.Instead of harmonizing with facile platitudes, the news media should be asking some tough questions about the political emphasis on volunteerism. So far, that hasn't happened.

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