Let’s honor the life of a great American who took an unconventional path by Michael Gerson

Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Neil Boyer (Ethiopia 1962-64)

Let’s honor the life of a great American who took an unconventional path

Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) is pulled in two directions by a supporter and his wife, Clare, at a rally in Pittsburgh on Nov. 4, 1991. (Al Fuchs/AP)

By Michael Gerson
Columnist
January 24 at 5:38 PM

Many of the most interesting and consequential Americans of the 20th century found greatness in politics, military service and diplomacy. Only one took the path of the recently deceased Harris Wofford.

After a precocious childhood that included extensive global travel and a stint in the Army Air Forces during World War II, Wofford went to India for several months to absorb teachings about non­violent social change from disciples of Mohandas K. Gandhi. He soon became one of the main conduits of that theory for the American civil rights movement and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Wofford found a place advising then-Sen. John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign. Nearing Election Day, the young activist urged Kennedy to call and comfort Coretta Scott King at a time when her husband was in prison. This gesture helped secure African American votes that may have tipped a razor-tight election in Kennedy’s favor. (It is, by the way, the secret dream of every staffer to offer that one bit of wisdom that changes history.)

Robert F. Kennedy called Wofford — at that point a White House adviser on racial issues — a “slight madman.” It was this intensity of conviction that Wofford then brought to the civil rights movement, in which he earned one of the proudest American boasts: I marched at Selma.

That is one thing — boasting — that Wofford hardly ever did. But people were often carried along by the upward pull of his idealism. Things he set his mind to do tended to happen. He helped found the Peace Corps, and VISTA (a kind of domestic Peace Corps), and AmeriCorps, and Senior Corps. All the corps, under different theories and acronyms, were trying to encourage service to the country, a cause he advocated with evangelical zeal.

Other than what he called his “brief Republican period” at age 12, Wofford was a progressive. But of a certain type. He was not an activist because he found his country to be inherently flawed. He was an activist who loved his country so deeply that he could not bear to see it desecrated by racism and despair.

The content of Wofford’s communitarian liberalism has always had significant overlap with a kind of civil-society conservatism. In both approaches, solving social problems is not just the work of government professionals; it is also the work of citizens. Countless small acts of service can add up to a more just and welcoming society. And one hopeful role for government is to catalyze volunteerism — employing government to encourage self-government. On this common ideological ground, Wofford built bipartisan consensus — say, on AmeriCorps — that few thought possible.

Wofford’s theory of social change is compelling. It speaks to the individual. No life lived in service to others is empty. Service is a good way to launch young people into responsible adulthood. A good way for seniors to share undiminished wisdom and skills. A good way for anyone to give purpose to their freedom and direction to their gifts.

It offers improvement at the social level. Service, as Wofford viewed it, is a source of grass-roots solutions to lingering social problems. Many of our worst challenges are deepened by apathy and passivity. They are overcome by committed, organized community effort.

And service is a way to cultivate something less tangible: the practice of citizenship. We are a nation that talks a great deal about who should be a citizen. There is less emphasis on how to be a citizen. And that is often learned in the company of others who share a public goal. Bonds of common purpose become ties of civic friendship, reaching across political divides. In a time of bitterness, choosing to serve others offers a kind of healing grace.

Wofford carried these ideals in a manner that amplified their influence. Cynicism melted around him, as if he were a bonfire in the snow. He was kind but tenacious — as anyone discovered when he wanted them to sign a letter, or serve on a commission, or attend a summit. Encountering him always left the question: How can someone so gentle be so influential?

Along the way, he left a country strewn with people who were shaped in some way by his example. So many found a meeting or conversation with Wofford to be a turning point in their lives. Perhaps because he saw service to others not as a grim duty but as the path of joy.

His path has led onward. And so passes Harris Wofford, citizen.

 

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  • In addition to serving in Ethiopia, with Harris as my country director, he was appointed by President Clinton to head the Corporation for National and Community Service where I worked. In fact, he added Community to the Corporation’s title, again showing his devotion to community service. Harris was always full of ideas, some of which were not too practical. As I wrote in the booklet commemorating his service, I credit him with saving the world from a nuclear confrontation during the Cuban Missile Crisis by getting Kennedy elected. As Senator, he introduced me to Hill staff to help me as the President of the Corporation’s Labor union when the former ACTION staff, mostly RPCVs and VISTA were threatened with loosing their jobs because Jack Lew, council for Clinton’s office of national service, was trying to get rid of us as he did not appreciate the fact that our service was no different than that envisioned by Lew and his associates. My testimony to a subcommittee in Congress resulted in allowing us to remain with the Corporation for a year, at the end of which we were permanently extended. Harris always took the time to make me feel valued, both as a volunteer and a person, even when I upset him as I did twice in Ethiopia. He never carried a grudge to the best of my knowledge. He was always available and did not shirk his duties. I will remember him as long as I live and hope to link up after to share beliefs. I suspect that he is already organizing angels to be more effective, if that is a possibility.

  • Although I was never as close to Harris as other Ethiopia PCVs, I enjoyed a few private moments of encouragement from him. During my 20s, he became my role model, although I never entered politics, nor did I ever live up to the praise he gave me for an article I wrote while serving: he called me “the best writer in the Peace Corps.” His positive hyperbole and idealism (laced with humility) were infectious. Once, during a hike with Harris near our remote village, a rock tumbled down nearby. The fact that it missed him seemed to me to be an act of fate. I said, “Your a man on a mission, and can’t be stopped.” I’ll never forget Harris’ warm smile and his reply: “I’m only Africa’s Peace Corps representative. What would it matter?”

  • I had he honor of meeting Harris Woford personally in Portland, Oregon a decade ago, and was impessed. I did not know him when I was a volunteer (Nepal 1963-65), but I came to know over time of his importance as one of the foundation personages in the early development of the Peace Corps, as well as in the liberal politics in which the Peace Corps was conceived. We RPCVs and PCVs owe him a great debt and should remember him for a long, long time.

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