One of the first speeches I ever wrote for President George H.W. Bush was in 1989, for the ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom to be awarded to a small group of American heroes. Now it's Bush's turn. This afternoon, he will stand with more than a dozen other legendary figures as he receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. "All of them have lived extraordinary lives that have inspired us . . . and made our country and our world a better place," Obama said in announcing the recipients. Bush, who so often is overlooked in the list of presidents from Reagan to Clinton to Bush 43 to Obama, has led an extraordinary life since he left office. More importantly, he's made our country a far better place. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
Not only have he and Barbara Bush raised over $50 million for the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and chaired hundreds of family literacy events nationwide, he also teamed up with Bill Clinton to raise millions in private funds for survivors of the tsunami in South Asia and, later, Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast. In one of his last speeches before leaving office, he said that in his mind, all of his legislative and foreign policy accomplishments, including a peaceful end to the Cold War, were surpassed by the founding of the Points of Light movement (named for his 1988 description of the country as a network of volunteer organizations "spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky"). He also called Points of Light "the soul of America" and the promise of its future. No wonder all the living former presidents are honoring him next month for his life of service (disclosure: I'm on the host committee for that tribute).
What makes Bush different from any other president in American history is that he was the only one to recognize, on a daily basis, ordinary American citizens who were doing extraordinary things. Starting in November 1989, he named a different citizen a "daily Point of Light" each day. He continued to do so for four years; 1,020 were honored in all. It began a movement that is changing the course of our nation.
Don't get me wrong. Volunteerism has been a unique part of the American character since before Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of it almost 200 years ago. No other nation on Earth relies as much on the power of its citizens to help solve its worst problems. Most others assign a government minister to create a new bureaucratic program. But Bush was ahead of his time in taking this distinctly American idea of voluntary service and seeing that, over time, it would become indispensable to our future. Now it is part of the most promising strategies we have for ending poverty, hunger, drug abuse, and illiteracy. There isn't a problem in America today that can be solved without relying in some part on the ingenuity and hard work of ordinary people stepping up. [See which members of Congress get the most in campaign funds from nonprofits.]
Bush saw, correctly, that government can't do it all: Government can't rebuild a family or reclaim a sense of community. No state bureaucracy will ever solve all the problems that are being addressed by a vast galaxy of Americans working voluntarily in their own neighborhoods.
He asked each of us to think about our strengths and talents, and to consider how we can each use them to help someone in greater need. "We all have something to give," Bush said, "So, if you know how to read, find someone who can't. If you've got a hammer, find a nail."
In the 20 years since he issued that call to action, the number of Americans who have stepped forward to help others in their communities has skyrocketed. Older teenagers have more than doubled the time they spend volunteering, and baby boomers are volunteering at sharply higher rates than previous generations did at midlife. High school and college community service programs have become the norm, and business support for employees who volunteer has become standard practice. Applications to City Year have tripled in the last two years, and last year, the Peace Corps had three applicants for every position. AmeriCorps applications are through the roof. The world has changed. I don't think we'll ever go back to the days when we thought drug abuse, homelessness, illiteracy, hunger, or pollution were someone else's problems. [See the 10 best cities to find a job.]
"Community service" has evolved from something that used to be only an option for punishment under our penal code to an essential part of life for millions. "When it comes right down to it, what you want—what all of us want out of life—are two things: meaning and adventure," Bush once told a group of young people. "You can find what you're looking for helping others. If you walk this path with me, I promise you a life full of meaning and adventure." More Americans than ever are with him on that path.