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Former Aide Defends Bush Record on National Service

By Jonathan Weisman
One of the architects of President Bush's first-term volunteer service initiatives struck back today against Sen. Barack Obama's assertion that Americans were not asked to sacrifice in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

John Bridgeland, a key domestic policy aide of Bush's, stressed that he has endorsed the presumptive Democratic nominee's proposals to expand the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and USA Freedom Corps, along with bolstering Bush's faith-based social services programs. And he offered surprisingly warm words for the senator from Illinois.

"I endorsed Senator Obama's plan because he is doing the right thing," Bridgeland said, lauding Obama as "a man of honesty and integrity."

But he bristled at Obama's attack yesterday in Colorado Springs when the senator from Illinois charged that in the wake of 9-11, "Instead of a call to service, we were asked to go shopping. Instead of a call for shared sacrifice, we gave tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans in a time of war for the very first time in our history."

Bush did suggest that Americans carry on with their lives and maintain consumer spending to prop up the shocked economy. And the tax reductions delivered in 2003 were the first large-scale tax cuts during war time ever.

But, Bridgeland said, that is hardly the whole story. In a letter to the Obama campaign, Bridgeland quoted Bush's 2002 State of the Union address, when he announced the creation of the USA Freedom Corps, which combined Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America under one umbrella while creating a new Citizen Corps for homeland security and expanding the Peace Corps.

"My call tonight is for every American to commit at least two years -- 4,000 hours over the rest of your lifetime -- to the service of your neighbors and your nation," Bush exhorted.

Bridgeland, then a senior domestic policy adviser, was tapped to head the USA Freedom Corps and oversee the faith-based initiative. The president went on to do 28 events over the next two years to highlight the work of the Freedom Corps. Bridgeland also created a new White House National Service Council, to function like the National Security Council and coordinate the diffuse volunteer efforts scattered throughout the federal government.

Since then, AmeriCorps has grown from 50,000 to 75,000, Peace Corps's ranks did expand to the highest levels in 32 years and Senior Corps reached 540,000 by 2004.

The White House has been largely quiescent this campaign season, as both Obama and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain have taken shots at the president and his policy. Bridgeland's protest of yesterday's speech is remarkable both for breaking that silence and for lending support of sorts to the man who delivered it.

In the letter to the campaign, Bridgeland wrote, "Your boss is a man of complete integrity and honesty and that is what draws so many Republicans to him, including my parents and many others. I hope you will share this note with him."

Obama aides say in no way did the senator denigrate the service of those who joined the military and other volunteer organizations after 9/11. But, they say, those volunteers were hardly encouraged. What growth there has been in the federal volunteer corps has been a constant struggle against budgetary restraints and has hardly been a presidential priority, they said today.

By Web Politics Editor  |  July 3, 2008; 2:29 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama  
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