The Man Who Defined National Service

Harris Wofford, the former Pennsylvania senator who helped create–and then save–AmeriCorps, has died at 92.

When I went to work for Harris Wofford in 1995, I knew him only as a legend. By that point, he had already achieved more in his career than all but a tiny fraction of senators or governors in the last century.

Wofford, who died over the weekend, had mentored Martin Luther King on the art of non-violent civil disobedience; he marched in Selma; he prodded John F. Kennedy to call Coretta Scott King when the civil rights leader had been imprisoned, probably tipping the election to JFK; he helped create the Peace Corps and ran its Africa program; he was elected senator from Pennsylvania in a campaign that convinced the Democrats, for the first time in decades, that universal health care was a winning issue; and as a senator, he was a key force behind creating the national service program AmeriCorps, and authored legislation with Georgia Congressman John Lewis that established Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

I relished the idea of working with him, even if all I got out of it was a few old war stories about his times with King and Kennedy. But I ultimately got so much more.

Wofford lost re-election for his Senate seat in 1994, as the Newt Gingrich-led “Republican revolution” resulted in the party gaining 54 net seats in the House and eight net seats in the Senate. But a year after Wofford’s defeat, President Bill Clinton appointed him to be the CEO of the Corporation for National Service, the government agency that runs AmeriCorps and other service programs.

Republicans had just taken over Capitol Hill and had already voted to eliminate AmeriCorps, which they viewed as a wasteful, big-government program too closely associated with their despised Democratic president. Defending the program from GOP assault would require a shrewd political operator who could not only protect AmeriCorps but actually get opponents to change their mind.

Around this time, I joined Wofford as a senior adviser. I discovered something important about him right away: he rejected the distinction between being idealistic and pragmatic. He hated it when people described him as “a dreamer.” He took great pride in his ability to forge real compromises and adopt effective tactics.

When it came to safeguarding AmeriCorps’s survival, Wofford’s strategy was threefold: 1) wholeheartedly defend the program, which had already placed thousands of young people in the field; 2) truly listen to the legitimate concerns of the other side; and 3) find a way for the Republicans to get “a win” that would nonetheless be good for AmeriCorps.

It’s important to note that points 2 and 3 are different. Of course, Wofford cared about the optics, but he also genuinely wanted to know whether there was merit to GOP criticisms. When we told him that Republicans were saying there’s too much waste in the program, he responded, “Are they right?” He always sought to figure out a persuasive rebuttal when they were wrong, but he also looked for areas of genuine agreement. That’s different from the popular conception of compromise—i.e. when you accept something disagreeable to get something you want. He did that, too. But he also wanted us to see whether there was something we could learn from our critics. That way, he could “give up” something that actually made the program more effective.

Wofford engineered an aggressive public campaign that defended the program and emphasized a new aspect: the role of AmeriCorps members in organizing unpaid volunteers. Republicans had been sniffing that full-time AmeriCorps members were “paid volunteers,” an approach morally inferior to the traditional approach of citizens donating a few hours a week. Rather than mocking this “thousand-points-of-light” formulation, Wofford assembled testimony from nonprofit organizations, like Habitat for Humanity, that said AmeriCorps members routinely helped them better mobilize and manage unpaid volunteers. AmeriCorps, therefore, made volunteering more effective. Full-time service and traditional volunteerism, he went on to say, were the “twin engines” of citizen action. Wofford spent many hours working with Republican members of Congress and governors to make the case that national service was a Republican-friendly idea.

Meanwhile, he asked us to undertake secret negotiations with the staff of the leading GOP critic, Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, to strike a deal. This was done without the approval or knowledge of the Clinton White House, which meant Wofford was taking a huge risk: if the talks blew up, he would be blamed. Wofford could come across as genteel, but the man had real guts.

Fortunately, the negotiations bore fruit. Wofford’s team proposed smart changes, like reducing headquarters costs, leading Grassley to shift positions. He went from advocating AmeriCorps’ elimination to endorsing its expansion. It was classic Wofford: don’t give up on your ambitious goal and work with both your enemies and your friends to make it happen.

Harris was, as you might discern from his biography, very progressive. He fought hard for liberal priorities. But he wanted to work with opponents not only because that helps you achieve your objectives, but because you might be able to learn something from them. He repeated that approach over and over throughout his career. And the result was invariably the same: he advanced progressive causes.

Despite his success and stature, he was an exceedingly kind man. He was always curious about what was going on in your life, what your opinion was. It’s invigorating when a man who had hung out with Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy seems to find you interesting. He was incredibly generous with his time, never viewing tasks as beneath him if they could be helpful. It made us all want to work harder for him, and the cause. Great people, it turns out, can be good people, too. Kindness, as a matter of fact, is often part of their effectiveness.

Harris directly and indirectly improved the lives of millions of people. He had this impact because he held on to grand, noble dreams, while embracing political grunge work that was often grubby and unpleasant but that helped achieve lofty goals. In that sense, it was poetically perfect that Harris died on January 21, as thousands of young people all across the country participated in community service projects in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

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Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman, a contributing editor, is the author of Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom, from which this article was adapted. He is also cofounder of Report for America.