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Guest column – Civic ‘woodpile’ beckons

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By Erskine Bowles

The practical idealism of our civic leadership tradition in North Carolina provides a needed antidote to what is lacking not just in our national politics but also in our national civic life.

My dad used to say all of us have a responsibility to add to the community woodpile. Our time, money and energy are precious commodities, and it’s hard to want to give them away.

Yet North Carolina’s business and civic leaders have realized the value of community service and been absolutely instrumental in making this state the progressive, forward-looking place it is.

That old Republican, Calvin Coolidge, might have been right that the business of America is business.

But it is also true that if North Carolina business leaders had focused only on their private-sector operations throughout the last century, our state would never have risen from its Rip Van Winkle status.

And if our future business leaders make this mistake, we will surely fall back into bottom-rung status not only here in America, but globally as well.

The genius of our civic leaders has been that they did not get hung up on ideological labels.

It didn’t matter to them whether they were helping to build up a business, governmental, nonprofit or religious institution.

To them, all of these institutions were part of a seamless web and helping all of them added to the community woodpile.

Contrast that open, fully human spirit with the approach of too many in politics today.

In their rhetoric, the lives of people – and the challenges they face – often get reduced into cardboard-thin caricatures in 30-second ads.

Judging from the rhetoric of too many politicians, there seems to be precious little happiness or sadness, fulfillment or disappointment, generosity or meanness, or any other human experience beyond those relating to government action or inaction.

No wonder so many people tune out when most politicians start talking today. Our best source of societal enrichment does not reside in either business or politics, in either the market or the state.

Instead we need to focus more on the “third sector” that falls in between these poles.


Erskine Bowles, a senior adviser at Carousel Capital in Charlotte, N.C., is seeking the Democratic nomination in the 2004 race for the seat in the U.S. Senate held by John Edwards. This column is adapted from a speech he made Aug. 22 to students at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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