Harrison Wofford believed we bring out the best in ourselves only when we serve others, Begala writes.

Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He was a consultant to Priorities USA Action, which was a pro-Obama super PAC before it was a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.

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To write an appreciation that fully captures Harris Wofford’s amazing life is too big a task for this space. His canvas is too large, his story too sweeping, his causes and accomplishments too vast.

Suffice to say, if you believe in racial equality, if you share the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., if you admire the Peace Corps, are stirred by the memory of JFK, thought the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were successful, if you champion the education of women, and believe we can achieve greater unity and community through national service, you should know about Harris Wofford, who left us this week at age 92.

After touring India after Gandhi’s death, Wofford and his wife, the estimable Clare Lindgren Wofford, wrote a book in 1951 urging a Gandhian strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience to break segregation.

President Barack Obama presents former Sen. Harris Wofford with the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal.

During the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956, he took his ideas straight to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., writing him a letter advising that: “Some jail-going, at least by selected members of your body, would be a wonderful thing for this country and for the world. And I would think if enough of you, in the right cheerful spirit, rode the buses, and went to jail rather than to submit to segregation, the whole silly house of cards might now crumble on bus segregation.”

He was one of the first white people to graduate from Howard University Law School, and played a role in the 1957 Civil Rights Act – the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. Critics rightly pointed out that the bill was weak tea – it largely left the savagery of segregation intact. But it did establish the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and the US Commission on Civil Rights. More important, it was a start, and Wofford was a pragmatic idealist: he believed in progress, not perfection.

Working in JFK’s campaign, Wofford was instrumental in persuading the candidate to call Coretta Scott King to offer encouragement when her husband had been jailed in Georgia. Mrs. King feared for her husband’s life. At Wofford’s urging, JFK shone a light on King’s dark cell. Robert Kennedy phoned the Georgia judge who’d locked up King, and soon King was a free man and Kennedy (who had voted against even the weak 1957 Civil Rights Act) won the support of African-American voters in his razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon.

After serving in the Kennedy White House as special assistant for civil rights, Wofford joined his close friend Sargent Shriver in standing up the Peace Corps. Nearly 58 years later, 230,000 Americans have gone overseas to serve their sisters and brothers in 141 countries.

He was an early supporter of, and key adviser, to both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama on their paths to the presidency. Clinton later chose Wofford to lead the Corporation for National and Community Service; Obama bestowed the Presidential Citizens Medal on him.

At nearly every critical juncture of the last 70 years, it seems Harris Wofford was present at the creation. But he was no mere Zelig who happened to be in the neighborhood when history was happening. Far from it. For seven decades he was deeply engaged in the effort to form a more perfect union.

I played a bit role in this amazing man’s life. When Sen. John Heinz, a Pennsylvania Republican, died tragically in 1991, Gov. Bob Casey appointed Wofford to his seat. Wofford asked me to be his campaign manager in the ensuing special election, a quixotic bid to be the first Democrat to win a Pennsylvania Senate seat since 1962. His opponent was Richard Thornburgh, a popular former two-term governor then serving as President George H.W. Bush’s attorney general. In our first poll, Thornburgh led by 47 points. He didn’t have 47% – he was leading by 47%.

Six months later, Wofford won by 10 points – a 57% swing. He wasn’t a great fundraiser or an oratorical magician, and he hadn’t mastered the dark arts of negative campaigning. He won his upset-landslide through the rarest of political gifts: vision.

A fellow political consultant likes to say, “Those who speak of vision possess it not.” Wofford never touted himself as a visionary – but that is what he was. He foresaw full equality for African-Americans when segregation was the law of the land, and he marched with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery to help make it so.

He envisioned a Peace Corps that would project America’s moral strength as powerfully as the Army he’d served in projected our military strength, and he moved to Ethiopia to make it so. He envisioned a health care system in which, as he said in his 1991 campaign, “If a criminal has a right to a lawyer, a sick person should have the right to a doctor” – and he centered his campaign on it to make it so.

He envisioned a national day of service honoring his friend, Dr. King. “A day on, not a day off,” he called it, and sponsored legislation to make it so. He endorsed Barack Obama’s election early and worked enthusiastically to make it so. He envisioned laws that cared not a whit who you fall in love with and marry, and at age 90 married Matthew Charlton in a ceremony rich with family, poetry and song.

How to best commemorate such a life? For me the answer is clear: service. f I try to find a constant in his peripatetic, multifaceted life, it is service. Wofford did not believe in the politics of self-absorption. He did not believe in declaring moral superiority then going home. He believed we are here to serve one another, and that the way to move the country to higher ground was to begin on the common ground of service.

From his days in the Army, to his years in the civil rights movement, the Kennedy administration, leading Bryn Mawr College as its president, as Pennsylvania’s secretary of labor and industry and a US senator, running the Corporation for National and Community Service, and so much more, Wofford believed we bring out the best in ourselves only when we serve others.

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    If he were here, he would tell the large and impressive crop of Democratic presidential candidates the same thing he told Bill Clinton in 1992: Make national service central to your campaign and to your presidency. Earning educational benefits by serving – as young people currently can do in the military, the Peace Corps, and AmeriCorps – ought to be an option for every American. The divisions in our country, he would say, can’t be solved by mean-tweeting each other. They can only be solved by coming together, working together, serving together.

    So deep was Wofford’s commitment to national service that, after his 1994 loss to Rick Santorum, he reached out to his foe to persuade him to support service. During the ’94 campaign, Santorum had derided Wofford’s vision as an excuse “for hippie kids to stand around a campfire to hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’ at taxpayers’ expense.”

    Five years later, Santorum’s Senate office was praising both service and Wofford. “The programs have changed and Harris Wofford has pushed it in a new direction,” said Santorum’s spokesperson at the time. “It gets people out of government service and into small nonprofits, where they are more facilitators than bureaucrats.”

    Harris spent more than seven decades not just on the right side of history, but on its leading edge. I can think of no better way to honor this visionary than for Democrats – and Republicans – to make service to country a central goal of this Congress and the next election.