In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy called on Americans to serve.  Sadly, those words — “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” — have become cliche today.  We hear them, but most of us drive right by that message of sacrifice without really pondering what it means.

Those words have faded from our collective conscience.  The presidency of George W. Bush has reduced “service” to fighting bravely in a war that should never have been fought in the first place.  Commentators and other bloggers have noted many a time that Americans were not asked to sacrifice once after the events of 9/11.  Immediately after the attacks on our country, the Bush administration focused on Iraq rather than observing and noticing the spirit of goodwill among American citizens as well as citizens of other nations.  After invading Iraq in 2003, the phrase “serving our country” was usually used with reference to joining the Armed Forces.

Even after the war had begun, the Bush administration’s policies and behavior indicated a philosophy antithetical to the Kennedy call for service.  With the nation mired in a mess in Iraq, President Bush never once veered from a policy of cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans, forcing the burden on those Americans barely able to get their proverbial feet under them.  With the price of oil skyrocketing, President Bush chose to visit Saudi Arabia to request that oil prices be lowered rather than approach Americans and ask them to sacrifice for the American economy.  This is the same man, by the way, who declared that America was addicted to oil.  When a drug addict admits to an addiction and then begs his or her supplier for more, that’s not responsible sacrifice — in fact, it’s not sacrifice at all.

Now, in 2008, we have two choices:  a man who worked for low-income families on the south side of Chicago versus a man who honorably served the country in another war it should not have fought.  Senator Obama has released a detailed plan for national service.  Obama will reward college students who give 100 hours of service to their communities with a $4,000 annual tax credit for school.  Obama will add 65,000 members to the military.  He will also significantly expand AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps.

Turning to Senator McCain, we’re left with very little.

John McCain, who’s predicated his presidential run in no small part on his distinguished military record, frequently exhorts Americans — and especially young Americans — to serve their country. Despite that appeal, he has yet to offer any proposals to expand or transform national service outside of the military.

…The McCain campaign will not commit to releasing a plan for expanding service opportunities. A senior policy adviser said only that they are “studying options for national service.” When asked why he does not have a service proposal, Pounder would only say that McCain is proud of his past support for service programs and has exhorted audiences to serve in this campaign.

While refusing to ask for a comprehensive sacrifice of the American people is regrettable when keeping Kennedy’s call to service and sacrifice in mind, it’s also not smart politics.  The Millennial Generation will offer roughly 50 million voters in the 2008 election.  These Americans have volunteered at record rates over the past few years.  In fact, 60% of 15-25 year olds have volunteered or continued to volunteer on a regular basis (CIRCLE, via Future Majority).  This generation’s general mindset is to help, big.  It’s a generation of builders that are civic-minded and want to work together to build a better society, and thus far, community service has been this generation’s most productive method of doing so.  However, many political junkies have heard by now that Millennials are not only serving, but voting too.  In the last three elections, Americans aged 18-29 have increased their voting rate and are on the verge of becoming a powerful voice in the American political dialogue.  McCain may not have the internet in common with Millennials, but he’d be best-served politically to develop a civic service bond with Millennials.

The Millennial brand of service seems identical to Kennedy’s:  service and policy to build, with politics and elections to protect.  Kennedy not only called on Americans to sacrifice; he also asked citizens — national and global — to hold accountable those Americans in power.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love…

Many Americans immediately link the “Ask not what your country can do” quotation with Kennedy; but they don’t realize that in the same speech he offered a compact of sorts.  If the American citizen will do all that he or she can do for his or her country, those of us in power will promise to maintain the same work ethic, the same ethical standards, and the same dedication to bettering the national community as the citizenry.  That promise, linked with Kennedy’s allusion toward sacrificing for the unknown (“a good conscience our only sure reward”) is not only the national service we need, but the closest thing to patriotism I can think of.

John Edwards’s statement early on in the primaries calling us to be “patriotic about something other than war” is relevant, but it’s only a start.  We need to build off that statement by working together in service to “the land we love.”  Many volumes have researched and described the connections between service and leadership; it’s a pretty natural linkage.  Any contender for the highest office in the United States should have a plan on restoring the patriotic duty of sacrifice and service — not just militarily, but all throughout our society.

UPDATE: Herbert Hoover, anyone?