Principle over Politics? The Domestic Policy of the George H. W. Bush Presidency

By Richard Himelfarb; Rosanna Perotti | Go to book overview

Discussant: C. Gregg Petersmeyer

Richard [Benedetto] talked about how much of a joke the points of light was, particularly in the first year of the Bush administration, and I used to collect cartoons, originals, that were about-like the “thousand pints of Lite”-and there were really scores of these cartoons. And I, to the extent I could afford it, would buy the originals and frame them and put them on my wall. So the wall, in the first year, really grew in terms of the number of cartoons; there were about fifty that had come from papers around the country. But they began to fall off, in terms of the number of cartoons, as the presidency hit about midpoint. And the high point of my cartoon watching came when someone called me and said, “Have you seen Doonesbury today?” And I said no, and the fellow said, “You’re in it.” And I said, “Well, he can join the long list of people who have done something on Points of Light.” He said, “No, you’re personally in it, by name.” And it turns out that Trudeau was doing a series of panels on points of light, and actually had, in the fourth day, Gregg Petersmeyer calling on the phone. And he said, “I’m calling to tell you you’re the 496th Point of Light.” Well, that was the high point. I did buy that original-it about cost me a month’s pay-but I always saw it as frankly a sign we were making progress, because, in my view, what points of light was about from the very start was not a program that has rules and procedures and management, but it was about a movement. And movements of any kind-whether it’s the environmental movement, the civil rights movement, the volunteer movement-are primarily about values and about ideas, and about initiatives that are spawned and encouraged by those values. So when I saw, in the culture of the country, attention being paid to this idea, even as a joke, I realized that we were on the right track.

And what I want to do in the few minutes I have today is to describe, at a level that was below the radar screen, below the daily point of light process, what we set out to do and how we attempted to do it. From the first day of President Bush’s time in office, he devoted very, very special attention to this whole subject. He was the first president in history to establish and White House office exclusively charged with this work, and no predecessor in the history of the presidency engaged the bully pulpit so fully on this subject, even though this is a subject that stretches back before the time of this country. And he established not only the Office of National Service in the White House, which continues-he established that in 1989—but in 1990, the Points of Light Foundation; in 1991, the Commission on National and Community Service; and in 1992, the National Center for Risk Management. All four of these institutions were designed to play specific roles in a strategy of a movement, and that strategy was specifically to do five things: to try to change people’s attitudes, which is the most important element of a movement; second, to identify what works; third, to discover and encourage and develop leaders; fourth, to reduce volunteer liability, which has a chilling effect on the impulse

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