WASHINGTON — Late in his 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy climbed the steps of the University of Michigan's student union, and, in a 2 a.m. address to 10,000 students, raised his voice with a historic challenge to the nation's youth:
"How many of you are willing to spend 10 years in Africa or Latin America or Asia working for the U.S. and working for freedom?" he asked.
The response was overwhelming, not only from Michigan, but from idealistic college students all over the nation, anxious to serve their country by helping others abroad.
Within a few weeks, the Peace Corps was born, charged with sending America's youth to serve overseas as volunteer teachers, engineers, carpenters and artisans of all sorts.
Today, at 30, the Peace Corps is larger and more extensive, but the shimmering Camelot image that initially suffused it has dimmed with time. Today, it is an agency in flux--and in turmoil.
Instead of operating solely in Third World countries, it is refocusing some of its efforts to Eastern Europe. Its volunteers now are older--by and large in their 30s. Even more unsettling to some critics, the agency has become embroiled in a controversy over whether it is becoming too political under the Bush Administration.
Its Bush-appointed director, former Atlanta insurance executive Paul D. Coverdell, has come under fire for a variety of changes he has proposed or put into effect:
* Coverdell's effort to make the Peace Corps "a vibrant, vital part of U.S. foreign policy" rather than continuing to be politically independent of the Administration has been attacked by Peace Corps veterans, who charge it would compromise the organization's integrity.
* He also has angered critics by trying to change the organization's name from Peace Corps to United States Peace Corps--a switch designed to more visibly promote the nation, but which opponents charged would diffuse the altruistic, nonpolitical spirit of the volunteer corps.
* The new director's push to rechannel some of the Corps' activities from Third World countries to Eastern Europe has drawn fire from both the veteran volunteers and the General Accounting Office, which complained that developing countries were coming out the losers.
* A similar battle emerged over Coverdell's attempt last summer to cut funds for projects dealing with women's development, agriculture and fisheries in favor of domestic teaching fellowships for returning volunteers and a pen-pal program between Peace Corps workers and public school pupils.
Just last November, the Corps' own inspector general found the changes had caused a major rift in Peace Corps ranks, producing "strain, confusion and chaos" within the agency.
And eventually, Coverdell was forced to reverse himself on his plan to change the name of the agency--after Congress stepped in, threatening to cut off funds for stationery bearing the new name.
For his part, Coverdell is unfazed by the barrage of criticism, defending the changes as fully justified in meeting the new world challenges.
"The era of the 'mud hut image' is over," he declared. "The world is changing, the requests from the countries are changing, and we are changing. When the Peace Corps was established, three-fourths of the world was rural. Now it's about half-and-half."
In his defense, Coverdell points out that only a small part of the agency's budget--2% in 1991--will be spent on Eastern Europe. And the agency is expanding this year to serve 90 countries, compared to 73 just two years ago.
This year, volunteers will arrive in Laos and Mongolia, the first Marxist-ruled nations to accept the Peace Corps. Talks are also under way to set up programs in China, Mozambique and Yugoslavia, as well as to resume work in the Philippines.
"This is a new generation of Peace Corps," Coverdell has said in speeches.
But critics charge that Coverdell's internal changes are only part of the Peace Corps' current problems. They say the agency is also being hurt because the director, a former Georgia state senator who headed President Bush's Dixie campaign in 1988, is planning to run for office himself.
Indeed, during his first 18 months as Peace Corps director, Coverdell visited his home town of Atlanta 19 times and appeared eight times in five other cities in Georgia--trips that all were paid for in full or in part by the government.
In all, 26 of the 45 of the domestic trips that Coverdell made as director in that period took him to Georgia at some point.
He has also been criticized for filling headquarters staff positions not with former field volunteers, as his predecessors did, but with people who have ties to Georgia, the Republican Party or the White House.
While Coverdell insists that "talent is the issue" on hiring decisions, of the 15 senior positions on his staff, only six have been filled by former volunteers or former Peace Corps staffers.
Coverdell says much of the criticism has been a reaction to his efforts to reorganize the agency.