WASHINGTON -- As 10 young people from Baltimore looked on, President Clinton signed his national service bill into law yesterday, fulfilling one of his most popular campaign pledges with a rare bipartisan victory.
Holding pens used by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the Peace Corps and the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, Mr. Clinton declared that national service "will help us strengthen the cords that bind us together as a people" and also help Americans remember "that what each of us can become is to some extent determined by whether all of us can become what God meant us to be."
Mr. Clinton appointed Eli Segal, the aide who pushed the legislation through a sometimes balky Congress, to head the new program that will allow students to trade public service work for college tuition money.
Standing just behind the president as he spoke were several dozen young workers, including 10 representatives of Civic Works, a non-profit Baltimore community service program emphasizing job training and basic skills.
"It was amazing," said Karena Marold, 20, of Highlandtown, who met the president after the ceremony. "I couldn't believe I was shaking his hand."
Also witnessing the signing were a crowd of dignitaries that included Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, congressional Republicans and Democrats, and the youthful founders of several recent public service start-ups.
The event had a twentysomething air as the rock band Soul Asylum played under a big tent on the White House's South Lawn. The president posed with scruffily dressed band members after his speech.
Although Mr. Clinton had to settle for a far more modest program than he wanted in order to gain Republican support, the government will spend $300 million on national service next year. Over the next five years, up to 100,000 students will receive funds for college, small stipends and health insurance coverage in exchange for taking part in community service.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Clinton's Kennedy-like appeals for a new age of national service were among his most popular promises.
As many as 20,000 people are expected to participate nationally next year, receiving up to $12,125 a year in tuition reimbursement and living allowances.
Civic Works Executive Director Dana Stein said that could mean between 400 and 500 new community service positions in Maryland. Mr. Stein said he hopes the new federal backing will allow him to more than double the size of Civic Works, which draws most of its 40 participants from Baltimore.
Among other projects, the Civic Works participants have cleaned up area parks, helped build houses for Habitat for Humanity and even planted flowers at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Aurelio "Ray" Colorado, a Civic Corps participant, agreed. "They should give this generation a chance to prove themselves. We have a lot to give."
He described how the program helped "teach me the discipline necessary to keep a job."
Mr. Colorado, a 20-year old Fells Point native, wasn't intimidated when he met the president. "Should I call you, Mr. President, Mr. Clinton or Bill?" he asked.
"Whatever you want," responded the president.