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The Wings of an Idea
Bush's Volunteer Program Has an Earnest Champion in John Bridgeland
By Nina J. Easton
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 27, 2002;
This is the West Wing of the Bush White House, so it's hard to ignore John Bridgeland's wall art -- the photos of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. "There's one of Reagan, too," he self-consciously interjects. In between these portraits is a framed letter from Kennedy special counsel Ted Sorensen, urging Bridgeland to trade in a lucrative legal career for the less measurable rewards of public service.
It's even harder to shake off the clouds of political confusion as this 41-year-old Bush aide describes his vision for USA Freedom Corps, the president's new pet project to amass an army of citizen-volunteers. Bridgeland plans to double the size of one program launched by a Democratic president (JFK's Peace Corps) and dramatically expand another that the Republican leadership in Congress spent most of the 1990s trying to erase (Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps).
On this recent afternoon in the White House, Bridgeland is talking about "courage and hope," "strengthening communities" and "preventing even one act of terrorism." He's so earnest, those blue eyes so rich with idealism, that it's tempting to enlist right then, right there. Boys & Girls Clubs, 4-H, Neighborhood Watch, Habitat for Humanity -- where's the sign-up sheet?
But wait -- Bridgeland is also talking about self-fulfillment and the pursuit of happiness. The volunteer's self-fulfillment. Government-inspired, government-funded happiness. "How do you instill in younger generations, and in senior Americans who are entering retirement, that whole mind-set notion of service?" he ponders. "What people are finding is that when you get outside your own self-interest, you find what's really fulfilling in life."
Is that grinding noise from a lawn mower outside the White House? Or agonized moans from those anti-government ghosts of the 1994 Republican Revolution?
Washington's weather vane has spun. That much was clear when President Bush launched the Freedom Corps as a domestic cornerstone of his State of the Union speech, and handed it off to the policy aide he fondly calls "Bridge" -- a bird-watcher who drives a Honda, a one-time tennis pro with a Harvard degree, a lawyer who honed his French in Paris and now quotes Aristotle in the White House.
For a committed Republican, Bridgeland has a lot of die-hard Democrat admirers. Freedom Corps "was taken seriously as an initiative because the president appointed John Bridgeland," says Mark Gearan, once Clinton's communications director, later Peace Corps director and now president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.
From Harris Wofford, the former Democratic senator who as AmeriCorps director fought Gingrich & Co.'s efforts to "zero out" the service program, comes this overage of praise: "John Bridgeland is one of the most impressive people I've seen in public life in recent times."
Bridgeland's biggest obstacle to making USA Freedom Corps a reality is likely to come from his own party, where some conservative lawmakers will resist adding another half-billion dollars to programs they already denounce as paid volunteerism run by fuzzy-headed bureaucrats. AmeriCorps, the most expensive of these programs, operates like a domestic Peace Corps -- providing modest living allowances to full-time volunteers and a $4,725 education grant at the end of one year. (Senior Corps acts as a placement service for elderly volunteers, while Bush's newly created Citizen Corps recruits unpaid volunteers for homeland security efforts.)
After Bush's State of the Union speech, House Majority Leader Dick Armey denounced AmeriCorps as "obnoxious," though he later softened his remarks after Bridgeland and his staff called to plead their case.
"It's Orwellian to talk about paying people to volunteer," says Ed Crane, president of the libertarian Cato Institute. "It flies in the face of American tradition. The idea that you can't do this without the federal government -- never mind whether it's constitutional -- is a slap in the face to the American people."
Even more than overcoming conservative doubts about Big Government, the newly appointed chief of USA Freedom Corps faces the tough job of keeping the post-9/11 momentum of public spirit rolling in a forgetful society. "Only once or twice a century do you have an opportunity to enlist Americans in public service," he says, quoting "Bowling Alone" author Robert Putnam.
In other words, if the Freedom Corps is to become more than political showmanship, Bridgeland will need plenty of patience, perseverance and persuasiveness -- three traits he knows something about.
Consider the stories of the owl and the hawk.
The mercury is nearing 70 and Bridgeland is strolling through sun-drenched Lafayette Square, where he has promised to demonstrate his skills at bird-watching. At the last minute he opts to leave his 8x35 Nikon binoculars behind in the town house that serves as the USA Freedom Corps headquarters. He heard that the Secret Service is so jumpy these days they will stop anyone who appears to be conducting surveillance on the White House across the street.
"I did see right out the window the other day a sharp-shinned hawk," he says, eagerly scanning the bare trees. "It's a smaller hawk, with a funny tail and black-and-white stripes, feeds on smaller birds." He sits down on a bench and starts pointing. "Let's see -- there's a ring-billed gull, a rock dove, a crow, nothing too exciting." His impressive catalogue of bird whistles may be the most entertaining part of the day's ornithological expedition.
Bridgeland first took up birding as a boy growing up in a comfortable Cincinnati suburb. He and his father saw a strange, almost prehistoric-looking creature fly overhead and followed it into a schoolyard. They bought a bird book, looked it up and determined it was a pileated woodpecker.
After that, the father-son duo was hooked. Weekends began with a 5 a.m. alarm; they would then venture into the woods and a nearby nature preserve. Their birding universe widened over the years as they went on hiking and canoe trips and expanded their list of sightings: a roseate spoonbill and a painted bunting on Sanibel Island, Fla.; a golden eagle in Montana; peregrine falcons outside Bridgeland's Manhattan law office.
Their joint life-list -- a compilation of birds spotted in the continental United States -- now consists of 468 species, and Bridgeland has begun a new one with his own three children, who range in age from 3 to 13.
For Bridgeland, birding provides a welcome respite from the press of Washington political life.
"It's like a little meditation, when life is so chaotic. You stop in the moment. And you look up and see this beautiful bird."
Which brings us to the story of the hawk.
When Bridgeland was 13, he caught sight of a young sparrow hawk on a telephone wire. The boy surmised that the bird, which seemed to be hungry and ailing, had been abandoned by a mother or an owner. So he went to the refrigerator, took out some ground beef and sat on the sidewalk. He sat for hours. Finally, the desperate bird flew down and started eating the meat right out of his hand.
For nearly a summer, the hawk was Bridgeland's pet. He would give the call -- a rippling whistle that sounds something like "killy-killy" -- and she would fly to him, feeding from his hand or resting on his head. After a couple of months, the hawk flew off.
Eighteen years later, Bridgeland was an up-and-coming associate in the Paris office of the prestigious law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. One morning during a winter break in Cincinnati, he and his father were on a hike and came across a man who boasted that he had just seen a saw-whet owl. "It's a tiny owl that comes down from the north if it's too cold," Bridgeland says, his voice rising in excitement. "It's so tame that you can literally go up to its talons. Occasionally it will perch on your finger."
Snow was falling -- heavily, then more heavily. The two men were scheduled to be on a flight to France that afternoon. Undeterred, Bridgeland and his father spent three hours walking through that snowstorm, looking for the tiny bird. "And we found it!" he exclaims, still thrilled.
Bridgeland was equally focused as a member of the Harvard tennis team -- on which he had some modest success -- and in a handful of pro tournaments, where he "never did very well." At just over 5 feet 8, "he's small. But he packs a lot of power into that small, intense body. A Rod Laver type," says Rep. Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican for whom Bridgeland worked for eight years. Portman recalls being invited by a senator to play doubles. Bridgeland and his boss crushed the senator and his partner. They were never invited back.
In high school, Bridgeland had been captain of the tennis team, captain of the basketball team, captain and quarterback of the football team, and president of the student government. As an undergraduate, Johnny (as he was known) had a wholesome reputation. On beer nights, friends would joke that they'd buy him a six-pack of milk. "Johnny was the guy who would stay in on a Friday night and actually have the paper done before it was due," says his college roommate Steven Powell. "He's very self-disciplined."
He studied under political theorist James Q. Wilson, picking up a language of civic morality and responsibility. He wrote his senior thesis on "Mr. Republican" -- Robert Taft, the senator and presidential candidate who also happened to be a founding partner of his father's Ohio law firm. But he openly rhapsodized about such political figures as the Kennedys, leaving some friends with the impression that he was a Democrat.
After Harvard, Bridgeland undertook a year-long fellowship in Belgium before entering the University of Virginia law school. Later, he was following a steady, upward career at Davis Polk -- including a three-year Paris stint wedged between work in Manhattan -- when he decided he wanted out. In his letter to Sorensen -- whom he admired but did not know personally -- Bridgeland complained that his corporate legal work was uninspiring: "I find myself reading books on the Constitution and the Lincoln-Douglas debates rather than 'Anatomy of a Merger' in Securities Law Reporter."
Portman, whose district includes Cincinnati, was friends with Bridgeland's older sister and knew he was dissatisfied and looking for a path into public service. He offered the young lawyer a job as counsel and chief of staff, at a 50 percent pay cut.
The Portman legislative agenda included some standard Republican fare -- tax reform and eliminating unfunded mandates -- but also items that were not so easily categorized. Portman recalls that Bridgeland's "fingers were all over" the Drug Free Communities Act, which provided seed money to local coalitions. Portman and Bridgeland rejected the emphasis by many Republicans on drug interdiction, arguing that demand -- rather than supply -- needed to be addressed. Bridgeland also helped Portman craft a law to conserve tropical rain forests by permitting developing countries to unload debt in exchange for measures protecting these endangered lands.
Bridgeland joined the Bush campaign in the spring of 2000. His stock rose quickly as he proved himself capable of handling everything from policy questions to providing litigation advice during the dispute over the Florida election results. "He grabs an issue, takes hold and finishes the job," says domestic policy adviser Joshua Bolten.
Much of that stems from Bridgeland's style. "He's the ultimate ground-smoother," says another White House aide. "He's like his name -- a bridge. He's very diplomatic. He's not the type who is going to confront you, or present you with a yes-no question. He'll lead you down the path he wants you to go -- without you realizing you're on the journey."
During Bush's first week as president, a group of disabled protesters gathered outside the White House gates, with signs and bullhorns and the potential to embarrass a new administration. Inside the White House, the call went out: Get Bridge.
He rushed outside, introduced himself and invited the group into the White House for an impromptu airing of their grievances, which concerned the slow pace of government efforts to provide community services as alternatives to life inside institutions. Bridgeland probably was as affected by the meeting as the protesters. "We went around the table, and they described their experiences. This one man described how he had been in an institution, been disconnected from community, friends, family. It was a moving story and it brought to life, through human experience, why this mattered so much to them," he says.
While Bridgeland handled a variety of policy issues during his first year in the White House, including work on energy issues and the controversial faith-based initiatives, colleagues say he was most passionate when talking about public service. In White House meetings, he'd quote Wilson on the effectiveness of Neighborhood Watch groups. He'd quote Putnam on the importance of capturing the rare moments of public spiritedness. He'd quote Alexis de Tocqueville on America's tradition of volunteerism. Behind his back, colleagues snickered -- but were also impressed. When the idea came up for a citizen corps of volunteers, Bridgeland was the obvious choice to head it.
"The idea is that getting outside yourself and serving other people is fundamental to a complete and happy self."
Bridgeland is sitting on a bench in Lafayette Square, talking not only about the philosophy of birding but also the philosophy of giving and of human fulfillment. "Aristotle talked about it, Cicero talked about it, Saint Augustine, too," he says. "It's steeped in Western civilization -- and frankly in most of the world's religions."
A couple of days later, Bridgeland sends an e-mail. He wants to point out that Bush has released a "service journal" enabling Americans to keep a record of their hours of volunteerism over a lifetime. Each lined page is topped with a quote or fact.
There's the president: "We want to be a nation that serves goals larger than itself." There's Ronald Reagan and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. There's Tocqueville and Cicero and Sophocles. There's the Dalai Lama and Confucius. There's even William Jefferson Clinton, offering a tribute to AmeriCorps.
If Freedom Corps is to thrive, Bridgeland recognizes that it must operate outside the realm of partisan warfare. "People who serve today are part of a long and rich tradition in history," he says. Inspiring an army of volunteers "takes different voices, with a range of people and ideas."
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