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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Presidents and Volunteers

At SoHealth, Jeremy Shane writes:
It is a once-a-decade kind of gathering – four living ex-Presidents in one room to celebrate one of their own. Monday night, HealthCentral had an opportunity to help underwrite one of these rare moments, supporting an epic fundraiser and tribute by the Points of Life Institute to President George H.W. Bush. The event featured Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Bush ’43, along with a bevy of top-flight entertainers and musicians. Characteristic of Bush ‘41’s personal modesty, the Kennedy Center event was less about his personal legacy than a celebration of great volunteers and volunteering.

From my vantage, a few rows behind the Presidents, both Mrs. Bush’s, and Mrs. Carter, the event underscored the decade-long shift through the 1990’s from The Greatest Generation to the Baby Boomers. In manner and meaning Presidents Bush ’41 and Carter exemplified an earlier time where parents instilled a sense of self-effacement and obligation, regardless of material circumstance. And yet, Bush ’41 – the father of five children who came of age during Flower Power – understood that a sermonesque call to do good would fall flat. The zeitgeist of the Baby Boomers, his kids, he knew, was self-awareness. And so, he channeled the spirit of self to rebrand volunteerism as a pathway to self-esteem. From the first days of the White House office overseeing the Points of Light Initiative, it became clear that it was as important to promote the “Lights”, the people volunteering, as much as the volunteer work they did. (Full disclosure: I was a political appointee in the Bush ’41 Administration). Bush’s Points of Light initiative shone the White House spotlight on some wonderful people and organizations. But it also presaged the rise of megachurches, with their positivist messages fusing affirmation and self-actualization. The lasting beauty of Bush ‘41’s signature domestic effort was to marry a Greatest Generation sense of commitment to sixties-era “me-ism”: volunteerism was good for the self, even as it was better for people in need. And, as Clinton admitted, he and his fellow Baby Boom successors ate it up.