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thousand points of light

A “thousand points of light” was slogan used frequently by former president George H.W. Bush to praise volunteerism and individualism.

Bush first used the phrase in his 1988 speech accepting the Republican nomination to the White House. In that speech, Bush differentiated himself from “liberals” by saying that he valued small government and individual liberty. He argued that America’s strength comes from its thousands of unique communities and volunteer organizations. He compared those communities to “points of light,” saying:

This is America: the Knights of Columbus, the Grange, Hadassah, the Disabled American Veterans, the Order of Ahepa, the Business and Professional Women of America, the union hall, the Bible study group, LULAC, “Holy Name” — a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.

Does government have a place? Yes. Government is part of the nation of communities — not the whole, just a part.

Bush argued that the nation was better off when volunteer groups were left free to do their own, community-based work. The thousand points of light eventually grew from a slogan into a movement. Once Bush was elected president, he created a foundation to push for greater volunteerism in America. As the New York Times noted:

There is a Points of Light Foundation a block from the White House, running “Points of Light” commercials on radio and television. There is a Point of Light coordinator in the White House to help the President pick his “daily point of light,” a group or individual chosen every day but Sunday for outstanding volunteer service.

The president’s critics, though, complained that the president was using volunteerism as a way of shirking government responsibility to help in the lives of the American people. Others worried that he was talking about charity without talking about the self-sacrifice that it required.

Still other critics wrote about what they called the “thousand points of blight,” taking aim at the flaws in private charities.

Eventually, the thousand points of blight turned into a catchphrase in its own right. Journalists still use the expression when they write about the poor and marginalized. A report on Hurricane Katrina referred to New Orleans as “a thousand points of blight.”  An article about the woes of the Oklahoma state legislature was likewise titled A Thousand Points of Blight.

During his presidency, Donald Trump brought up the old “thousand points of light” slogan to criticize it:

You know, all the rhetoric you see, and thousand points of light. Thousand points of light – what was that, anyway? Thousand points of light. What does that mean? Does anybody know? I know one thing. Make America great again, we understand.

Still, the original phrase, “thousand points of light,” lived on. When George HW Bush passed away, his son used the expression to honor him. George W. Bush spoke about his father and said:

He strongly believed that it was important to give back to the community and country in which one lived. He recognized that serving others enriched the giver’s soul. To us, his was the brightest of the thousand points of light.

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