George W- Bush

Shriver launched a Peace Corps that broadened Americans' lives

Although it's been more than two decades, I remember very clearly how nervous I was before stepping out onto the streets of Togo, West Africa, as a newly minted Peace Corps volunteer.

At dinner during our first night in the wet sub-Saharan country, we 40-some volunteers were dining on avocado halves when the lights went out. As our hosts worked to start the backup electrical generator, the sudden darkness jarred me into thinking how far out of my element I was. What if the Togolese were nothing like the people I had known back in my insular, white Massachusetts suburb? What if they were completely alien? I felt a little panicky.

But the lights came back on. I picked at my avocado, and the following day I began a journey - making many good Togolese friends and learning valuable lessons about the universality of human frustrations, dreams and endurance.

Sargent Shriver, the man whose leadership made that journey possible for me and more than 200,000 other Americans, died Tuesday at 95.

President John F. Kennedy launched the organization in 1961, as a way of introducing Americans to the rest of the world. He thought that our reputation abroad was "ugly" and arrogant. In his inaugural address, given 50 years ago today, Kennedy reminded us that we were in the historic position of being able to abolish all poverty or abolish all life.

"To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required," Kennedy said. "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

Shriver, a former Kennedy family employee married to the president's sister, Eunice, was named the Peace Corps' first director. The organization helped Americans grow from our insular 1961 world into the globally engaged nation we are today. The Peace Corps took us by the hand on that adventure. It provided a way to see the world for middle-class people - those who could afford to take a couple of years away from establishing their careers, but wouldn't necessarily be able to travel otherwise. It was an outlet for the tumult of the 1960s, growing quickly to 15,000 volunteers serving in more than 44 countries by 1966.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan first cut, then expanded the Peace Corps. The organization has been embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike, with George W. Bush and Barack Obama among its strongest supporters.

Shriver could have settled for Kennedy's original vision of sending some nice, young Americans abroad to charm the Third World. But he insisted on technical skills from the Peace Corps' early days. And he extracted a pledge from every volunteer to not only help host countries meet their needs for trained men and women, but to return to the United States to, in turn, bring the world to Americans.

Former Mali volunteer Anne Kopstein of Huntington takes photos to classrooms and community groups to talk about her experiences. Claudia Hart, who became a teacher in Connecticut, has devoted a corner of her home to Zaire, which her students visit. David Olson, another Togo volunteer, advocates on behalf of global health issues in Washington.

As Sargent Shriver departs for his next assignment, it's worth noting how many lives he touched by seeing the Peace Corps off to a sound beginning: generations of volunteers, their co-workers and friends around the world, and the people at home who are curious to hear our stories.

He made our world larger, just when the globe was shrinking.

Originally published in Newsday

Individuals are the last ones holding the bag

One of the most insightful comments on the U.S. Treasury bailout of the banks came from a recent "Doonesbury" cartoon. One character notes that America is privatizing wealth and nationalizing risk. In other words, people at the top are extracting riches from the financial system, while the taxpayers hold a safety net under those same institutions when they fail. They're "too big to fail," right? These days, I feel that we middle class householders are too little to succeed. I look at my 401(k) and college savings plans with real dread after last week's stock market plummet. The trend has all been toward handing us more risk for our own financial futures.

A story today from the Associated Press explains that college savings funds -- the New York State 529 plans -- have been hit by the recent whallop on Wall Street. Over the past two decades, secure company pension plans have mostly been replaced by 401(k) retirement savings -- which have also ridden the ups and mostly downs of the stock market. If President George W. Bush had had his way in 2005, the nation would have privatized Social Security as well.

Imagine tens of thousands of people waiting until the stock market recovers so they can retire, because both their 401(k) plans and privatized Social Security benefits were bottoming out with a bear market. As former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich argues in his book "Supercapitalism," in the past 40 years or so, we have gone from a nation of beneficiaries to a nation of investors. And we have taken on all the risk that implies.

Now, if only Americans can figure out a way to time college readiness, aging and death to coincide with the appropriate phase of the market, this investor nation idea just might work. (Insert sarcastic tone here.)

This timing thing matters a lot to the middle class, which has very little cushion. But surely it matters far less to people who are rich enough to be insulated from market swings. This is how politicians lose touch with middle-class reality -- they become rich. Mr. Bush and the people around him are far out of touch.