PHILADELPHIA -- In front of the birthplace of American democracy, they stood like a historic tableau -- three living presidents and a former first lady who was standing in for a fourth -- and asked the nation to help create a more perfect union through volunteer service aimed at children.

On a damp, gray day, standing before the red-brick Independence Hall -- and an imposing statue of George Washington -- President Clinton asked citizens yesterday to "fill in the gaps" between what is provided by government and the marketplace through community service.

"Yes, there are things the government should do," Clinton told about 3,000 delegates to the Presidents' Summit for America's Future, which runs through today.

"But even if we do everything we should, you and I know that a lot of problems facing our children are problems of the human heart."

With politics lost in the fog, Clinton was joined in this VIP "call to action" by his former Republican rival George Bush, as well as by former President Gerald R. Ford and Nancy Reagan, filling in for her husband, former President Ronald Reagan, who has Alzheimer's disease.

Also on the program were former President Jimmy Carter (appearing by satellite) and Colin L. Powell, chairman of the event.

The aim of the high-powered made-for-TV summit is to provide resources for 2 million needy children by 2000 by enlisting volunteer and charitable help of individuals, corporations and civic groups.

Clinton told Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "This may be your most important mission, and I want to thank you for re-enlisting."

On the second day of the much-ballyhooed gathering, with business and civic leaders, mayors and governors and a smattering of Hollywood celebrities, the dignitaries signed an official "Summit Declaration," making their pledges for specific actions.

"We gather here to pledge that those of us more fortunate will not forsake those who are less fortunate," Powell told the crowd, many of whom were wearing yellow Mickey Mouse rain ponchos provided by the Disney company.

Every American, Powell said, could spare 30 minutes a week or another dollar.

"It has to be done," he declared. "We have no choice."

In one poignant moment, a solemn Nancy Reagan said she wished her husband could be there.

"From this day forward, when someone asks you to help a child, just say yes," she said, playing on her "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign.

One of those in the audience, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of Baltimore, said he hoped to pick up some ideas from other cities at the summit.

Noting that he was seated next to Mayor Dennis Archer of Detroit, Schmoke said, "We steal ideas right and left."

With such a lineup of luminaries, security was tight. But the only ripples of conflict at this thoroughly upbeat, collegial and nonpartisan event came from a group of union members and community activists who gathered in a park to protest the welfare changes in the federal budget.

In the afternoon, small groups of delegates met in conference rooms in the Convention Center to exchange ideas and begin planning what they could do in their communities back home to spark the volunteer spirit.

"One of the most important things that has to happen is that we all come together on three or four major priorities," said Lee Jensen, president of the YMCA of Central Maryland.

"That's going to mean setting egos aside and not worrying about who gets credit. I'm concerned people will leave here and continue to do the same thing -- a little here, a little there, without any real focus."

But, he said, he was inspired to go home and "see what we can do."

Speaking at a luncheon, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland said the summons to action will begin once the summit ends.

"Volunteering cannot be an event," said Mikulski, who told about her background as a volunteer and social worker. "It cannot be a photo op. It must be a habit."

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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