Michael Gerson on Service

Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) is pulled in two directions by a supporter and his wife, Clare, at a rally in Pittsburgh on Nov. 4, 1991. (Al Fuchs/AP)

Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) is pulled in two directions by a supporter and his wife, Clare, at a rally in Pittsburgh on Nov. 4, 1991. (Al Fuchs/AP)


….The content of Wofford’s communitarian liberalism has always had significant overlap with a kind of civil-society conservatism. In both approaches, solving social problems is not just the work of government professionals; it is also the work of citizens. Countless small acts of service can add up to a more just and welcoming society. And one hopeful role for government is to catalyze volunteerism — employing government to encourage self-government. On this common ideological ground, Wofford built bipartisan consensus — say, on AmeriCorps — that few thought possible.

Wofford’s theory of social change is compelling. It speaks to the individual. No life lived in service to others is empty. Service is a good way to launch young people into responsible adulthood. A good way for seniors to share undiminished wisdom and skills. A good way for anyone to give purpose to their freedom and direction to their gifts.

It offers improvement at the social level. Service, as Wofford viewed it, is a source of grass-roots solutions to lingering social problems. Many of our worst challenges are deepened by apathy and passivity. They are overcome by committed, organized community effort.AD

And service is a way to cultivate something less tangible: the practice of citizenship. We are a nation that talks a great deal about who should be a citizen. There is less emphasis on how to be a citizen. And that is often learned in the company of others who share a public goal. Bonds of common purpose become ties of civic friendship, reaching across political divides. In a time of bitterness, choosing to serve others offers a kind of healing grace.

Wofford carried these ideals in a manner that amplified their influence. Cynicism melted around him, as if he were a bonfire in the snow. He was kind but tenacious — as anyone discovered when he wanted them to sign a letter, or serve on a commission, or attend a summit. Encountering him always left the question: How can someone so gentle be so influential?

Along the way, he left a country strewn with people who were shaped in some way by his example. So many found a meeting or conversation with Wofford to be a turning point in their lives. Perhaps because he saw service to others not as a grim duty but as the path of joy.

His path has led onward. And so passes Harris Wofford, citizen.

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