“This will be a cause of my presidency,” candidate Barack Obama said in a December 2007 speech about the Peace Corps at Cornell College in Iowa. “JFK made their service a bridge to the developing world. The Americans are not the problem, they are the answer.”
In the following months, Obama wrapped the mantle of the Peace Corps around his campaign, reiterating his vow that, as president, he would double the number of Peace Corps volunteers.
Born in the 1960s, the Peace Corps was one of the most important parts of President Kennedy’s vision of Camelot and the New Frontier. It was created at the height of the Cold War, and Kennedy envisioned an army of American volunteers helping people in other countries and promoting liberty and democracy abroad. At its height in 1966, there were 15,000 Peace Corps volunteers around the world.
Through the years the Peace Corps has enjoyed broad support from both Republicans and Democrats because they have recognized it as a valuable program.
So it was no surprise that Obama, a candidate who showed spirit and energy and vision, appeared to grasp the cause of the Peace Corps as a means to improve America’s image abroad. That image had suffered greatly in previous years, with favorability ratings dropping to as low as 30 percent even among some of our allies.
On inauguration day, hundreds of returned Peace Corps volunteers carrying billowing flags from the 139 Peace Corps countries marched in the parade. As they walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, many along the route shouted in support and some were even moved to tears at this display of the American spirit.
At the reviewing stand in front of the White House, President Obama pointed toward the volunteers and seemed visibly moved by the powerful spectacle. The Peace Corps was his now, and those who marched that frigid January afternoon believed Obama would keep his promise to “double the size of the Peace Corps from 7,800 volunteers to 16,000 by its 50th anniversary in 2011.”
I served in the Peace Corps in Nepal in the 1960s and saw firsthand the impact it had on the people we aided. I was also an early supporter of Obama’s presidential campaign, a volunteer and a member of his steering committee in Palm Beach County, Fla.
Thus, I was incredulous that soon after taking office, the new administration’s first budget for fiscal year 2010 gave only a 10 percent increase for the Peace Corps, taking it to $374 million. Given inflation, increased security costs, and the depreciating dollar, that meant there would be no large-scale increase in volunteers and no sustained move to a doubling of Americans in the field.
I was highly skeptical of the administration’s excuse that the prospects for massive growth had shriveled because of the recession. The Peace Corps money was part of a $49 billion Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill full of fat and excess, including a staggering $1.29 billion for Egypt.
The administration could have carved a few neat hunks off that lard and put it where it would do more good in the world. I was upset enough that I decided to work for a bigger budget with the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA), a group made up of former Peace Corps volunteers, and its program called, quite simply, More Peace Corps.
Our goal was to get Congress to appropriate $450 million, $76 million more than Obama’s figure. It was a wildly quixotic idea that the majority Democrats would go against the president, but as we walked the halls of Congress there was a groundswell of support. After all these years, the Peace Corps was one of the few unsullied agencies in the federal government, revered and honored, and we were warmly welcomed in most congressional offices.
But I also kept hearing the name of Chuck Ludlam, a returned volunteer and NPCA board member who was canvassing the Hill criticizing the Peace Corps bureaucracy, saying that the organization needed not more money but fundamental reform.
I knew that the Peace Corps was nothing like the gloriously inventive, daring institution it had been in the early years. Much of the decline happened after 9/11 when the Peace Corps became afraid that volunteers were in inordinate danger. And so they withdrew from countries where they feared there might be terrorists until there was not a single volunteer in South Asia. Instead, many of them were largely warehoused in places like the Caribbean, where they were presumably safe. The country directors and others now lived behind thick, high walls, and security became the pre-eminent concern.
I was intrigued enough by Ludlam’s concerns that I drove out to visit him in his northwest Washington home and spent a sobering three hours there. Ludlam showed me research suggesting that there was a 35 percent early return rate among volunteers largely, he argued, because the standards for acceptance were so low. And there was shockingly low morale in many countries.
Ludlam believed there was far too much staff, as in all bureaucracies, and too little regard for the individual volunteer in the field. The bureaucracy was stuck in a time warp, and woefully lacking in using the Internet to connect to volunteers. As I listened to Ludlam, I had to keep reminding myself that there were still several thousand Americans out there doing magnificent work against the toughest odds and conditions, largely without complaint and often with little or no help.
When I drove back home I was more convinced than ever that “More Peace Corps” was not enough. What was needed was a “Bold New Peace Corps,” both enlarged and reformed, and I got my colleagues to agree that from then on we should use that mantra. And so as we headed back to the Hill as the Bold New Peace Corps, we lobbied for reform as well as for more money.
Ours was a movement of idealists, but unfortunately, the umbrella organization that we worked with, the NPCA, was of little help. NPCA purports to be an independent nonprofit of returned volunteers, but it is partially funded by the Peace Corps and is not financially independent. NPCA produces the Peace Corps’ WorldView magazine, but over the years none of the volunteers’ legitimate criticisms reached the pages of Worldview. If those concerns had appeared and if the NPCA had been an authentic free voice of the volunteers, the Peace Corps would probably have dealt with the complaints when they were relatively easy to fix.
Despite the weaknesses of the NPCA, our movement energized thousands of returned volunteers. The House offices and the White House were inundated with e-mails and calls. We decided to have a rally near the White House, and in eight days we put together a gathering that included musicians playing for free and an assorted group of speakers including Tim Shriver — CEO of Special Olympics International and the son of Sargent Shriver, the first head of the Peace Corps, and JFK’s sister Eunice.
Tim was, to my mind, the best candidate for Peace Corps director. He grasped that the organization had to be radically reformed and rejuvenated for the 21st century, and he was full of ideas regarding how that should be done.
After our rally two blocks from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Shriver led the placard-carrying volunteers and others to the White House where we stood outside the gates chanting “Bold New Peace Corps” and “Hear us, Mr. President.” Those gathered there were overwhelmingly Obama supporters, and this event was carefully crafted as a “rally,” not a “protest movement.” As we shouted, I wondered if the White House heard our chants or cared.
A few days later, I met Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s top aides, at a fundraiser. “You made a big mistake having that rally,” she said. “You never should have done that.”
We had wanted to be seen as loyal supporters pushing Obama to be true to his pledge, not as protesters ranting against him, and it was stunning that the administration could not make that distinction. They did not seem to understand that the true friend is the one who offers honest criticism. One must listen and learn or soon those same complaints will be spoken by one’s enemies in harsh, uncompromising language.
As I continued to walk the halls of Congress, talking to aides and members, I made a point of courting Republican members, telling them that they were wrong to allow the Democrats to turn the Peace Corps into their fiefdom, and that conservatives should be fervent supporters of a bold new Peace Corps.
In the end, the entire House State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, Republicans and Democrats alike, voted the full $450 million and the House bill passed with that sum intact. The Senate was not so generous, and in the end the two houses of Congress compromised, giving the Peace Corps $400 million. That was still $26 million more than Obama had requested. It was a signal achievement for our movement, but hardly the money needed to begin to fulfill the president’s pledge.
The new director of the Peace Corps, Aaron Williams, is the first African-American man to serve in that post and has a long, distinguished career at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Williams is a solid administrator and a serious man, but he does not appear to have the vision or the ambition needed to create a Peace Corps double in size, and double in purpose and energy. There are currently 7,671 volunteers, roughly the same number as when Obama took office.
Yes, the Peace Corps is going back to Indonesia, but there will be only 25 volunteers in a country of 228 million. Yes, the Peace Corps is reportedly going back to Haiti, but there are to be 30 volunteers and they will not be there until a year from now. Yes, Williams is making some reforms within the agency, but nothing like the fundamental changes that are needed. Yes, the lights are back on at the Peace Corps headquarters, but in the early years they often glowed late into the night. Walk past that building now at six o’clock and it will likely be dark.
The Obama administration has proposed an 11.5 percent increase in the Peace Corps budget for the 2011 budget, bringing it to $446 million. That is enough to add volunteers but it is not anything like Obama’s campaign vision. This is not just about money, though. It is about passion and concern and daring, and that is the bottom line that is most lacking.
Next year at its 50th anniversary the president will give an eloquent, passionate address about the Peace Corps and volunteering in general. Those who hear the president will for a moment forget how profoundly he reneged on his pledge. In doing so, the young president broke with the very spirit and energy that had lifted him to the highest office in America.
The Peace Corps is a small agency dwarfed by the State Department, USAID, the armed forces, and other instructions of government, but it has unique possibilities.
It is not too late for the president to capture the altruistic, intrepid spirit of the American people and send 16,000 or more of their sons and daughters off to the farthest reaches of the world, carrying our ideas and our concerns.
Laurence Leamer is considered a leading authority on the Kennedy family for his trilogy The Kennedy Women, The Kennedy Men, and Sons of Camelot. He also has written best-selling biographies of Johnny Carson, the Reagan family, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His latest work is Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach.