I've finally discovered one of the keys to successful reporting on Washington--the green room. There are many theories of how the waiting room in TV studios got that peculiar name. Some say it goes back to Shakespeare. Whatever the derivation, if you sit in one long enough you'll meet all sorts of important (and quite a few self-important) politicians and pundits.

The night of Bush's State of the Union Message, I did just that. It was like watching a parade. I didn't immediately recognize all the members of Congress--many with entourages in tow. And they almost certainly didn't recognize me. So I was able to watch several politicians behave the way they do when they think no one is watching.

One senator turned the green room into his private office, taking total control of the TV remote and studio phone. His hovering aide had almost as imperious an air as he did. One congressman, after grumbling about his time slot, simply disappeared. He showed up again 30 seconds late for his spot, sending already harried producers frantically reshuffling the guest line up. With all the commotion, I hardly noticed the gentleman sitting by himself behind me. He was quietly watching TV and listening to former senator Al Simpson's homespun spin on Bush's speech. "He's a hard act to follow," the man commented after Simpson finished.

As I turned around to agree, I realized it was Sen. Evan Bayh, Democrat from Indiana. This unassuming man should have had a star turn at the State of the Union. Though it got lost in the postspeech analysis of "axis of evil" and "defeating the recession," President Bush announced something truly historic that night: Freedom Corps--a new and improved version of President Clinton's national service, including a citizen corps engaged in homeland security. About 40 percent of the ideas in the plan were laid out in a national-service bill already proposed by Bayh and Sen. John McCain.

Before the speech, Bayh got a "courtesy call" from an administration official, basically letting him know that the president would be appropriating (he didn't use that word, of course) the bill that he and McCain have been pushing. Bush didn't single Bayh out that night (and he certainly wasn't going to laud McCain). But Bayh didn't appear on TV after Bush's speech to demand credit. Instead, he praised the president using baseball lingo, calling the speech a "four bagger."

It was House Republicans who grumbled about the Freedom Corps idea. This week, outgoing House Majority Leader Dick Armey criticized the idea, saying the government has no business teaching Americans charity. When Clinton had been the one trumpeting AmeriCorps (which Bush now plans to expand), Armey called it "welfare for Yuppies." It's no surprise that those with a libertarian bent don't like the creation of more government to do what they see as a fundamentally nongovernment work. Bush defended his idea on Tuesday saying, "I think the country needs to provide opportunities for people to serve, expanding AmeriCorps, expanding Senior Corps--it's a good way for Americans to fight evil." Later in the day, Armey backed off, saying he hadn't realized that the AmeriCorps wasn't just being expanded but reformed. Maybe Armey should have gotten his own courtesy call.

In fact, with Armey in mind, AmeriCorps has been revised. Stipends for volunteers have shrunk and the organization is going to be have to be more "results oriented," explains one administration official. But Bush will not budge on the idea of government-facilitated public service. Immediately after September 11, Bush's answer to Americans' burst of civic duty was to tell them to go shopping. Ironically, privately he was waxing about how the long-term solution to the United States' image problem in the Islamic world was to change our materialistic culture.

Bush, arguably the most conservative president since Ronald Reagan, now wants to increase the number of Peace Corps volunteers to their 1966 levels. (Many will go to Islamic countries.) It's a bit like Nixon going to China. As commander in chief, Bush spent most of his State of the Union Message laying the groundwork for the huge increase in defense spending. As commander of compassion, he decided to spend a few of his precious prime-time minutes on an almost Clintonesque proposal, Freedom Corps. He could have saved it for a separate speech, where it wouldn't have gotten lost, but Bush sees this as a big part of his legacy.

One Bush family edict: go make some money, then go into public service. Bush himself volunteered the summer between college and business school at Project Pull, a Houston inner-city mentoring program. He told a crowd in Pittsburgh yesterday, "Maybe if you're interested in helping fight the war on terror you should become a mentor to a child." For some, the connection between fighting terrorism and mentoring seems a bit nebulous. Bush's belief is religious, even ethereal--that "a million acts of good" can conquer evil.

No one would accuse Bush of being an intellectual. In fact, many in the White House like to make fun of eggheads. Mention Harvard University to some aides, for example, and be prepared to get a tirade about feckless intellectual elitism. But in putting together Freedom Corps, the Bushies turned to many outsiders including Harvard professor Robert Putnam, whose book "Bowling Alone" documents how the World War II generation is still our most active. In part, that's because the government channeled its patriotism into service. "This is a once-in-a-half-century opportunity for Bush," Putnam says.

Bush's challenge is even bigger than FDR's. There is no ongoing visible war (yet) to keep Americans involved. Already, Putnam's recent studies show that the post-9-11 surge of volunteerism has dropped off. If Bush is really going to change the culture he is going to have to engage young people through civic education. Bush campaigned on not being "the federal superintendent of schools." But look for the next phase of Freedom Corps to roll out an educational component.

The man he's chosen to lead the way is John Bridgeland, who until now has been a little-known member of his domestic policy council. "Bridge," as he's known in the White House, is as passionate as his boss about public service. He even owned a company called Civic Solutions that got private companies involved in public service. He's a pragmatist who can talk shop with the Putnams of the world. One minute he's quoting Booker T. Washington, the next Alexis de Tocqueville. He's not exactly one to hang out in green rooms.