Former Presidents Clinton and Bush honor graduates of their Presidential Leadership Fellowship Program

Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were scheduled to appear last Thursday at 5 p.m. in the auditorium of the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University. The purpose of their appearance was to recognize 58 graduates of the class of 2019 from the Presidential Leadership Scholars, an executive-style leadership program that Bush and Clinton launched five years ago.

The media types – journalists and TV cameramen – had been asked to report at 3 p.m. Thursday at the center’s indoor loading dock. There, we submitted to a “secret service sweep” and let a bomb-sniffing dog check our equipment. Next, the center’s communications staff led everyone through a maze of long hallways and into the auditorium.

Since there were about 90 minutes to kill before the ceremony started, I decided to take a look at some of the artwork on the walls in the center. The Presidential Leadership Scholars — 30 men and 28 women, more than half of whom are of color — chatted in small groups in the meeting space and center lobby. A few sat or stood under a huge painting of W. in the Oval Office with then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of Bush’s key allies in pursuing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The portrait of Mark Balma, titled “The Ties That Bind”, was commissioned for the center by Dallas real estate investor Harlan Crow.

On another wall not far away hung one of the former president’s own oil paintings. Titled “Homeland Security”, it depicted a group of cactus plants with sharp needles. On the other side, a giant painting called “The Dream Keeper”, by Daniel Blagg of Fort Worth, showed a man dressed in white using a garden hose to clean the colossal carved presidential heads from Mount Rushmore. Just around the corner was another work, “Big Ol’ Gang”, by Western artist Andy Thomas. It depicted a fun game of draw poker played by eight Republican presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, W. and his father, George HW Bush.

The auditorium itself looked substantial and plush, with red velvet seats and dim lighting and a polished wooden stage with several appropriately placed comfortable chairs. Several tasteful logos had been placed on the walls for the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, the goal of which, according to the Center, is to train the next generation of leaders “through the prism of the presidential experiences” of W., the eldest Bush, Clinton and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Each year since 2015, approximately 60 “mid-career professionals” from business, government, the military, and the nonprofit sector have been selected to participate in the program, which offers approximately 20 days of instruction on place and requires a -month commitment. After an introductory session in Washington, D.C., in February, this year’s class spent three days at the George HW Bush Center in College Station (March 7-9), the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas (April 4-6), the Bush Center at SMU (May 9-11), and the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Center in Austin (June 6-8), ahead of last week’s graduation ceremony in Dallas.

During the various sessions, according to the Center, the 2019 Fellows learned visioning and communication, decision-making, persuasion and influence, and strategic partnerships from people like W.’s brother, Neil Bush. , retired General Wesley Clark, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, LBJ’s daughter Luci Baines Johnson, and W. and Clinton themselves.

“The country is full of decent and compassionate citizens who are ready to serve.” —former President George W. Bush

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The program, including travel costs, is fully supported by the Presidential Centers, through contributions from foundations, individuals and corporations. A Bush Center spokeswoman declined to say how much the program costs each year. But a PLS brochure printed for the 2019 graduation gave “special thanks” to three founding partners: the Moody Foundation of Galveston (which provided at least $10 million for the program, according to press releases from the foundation); the WW Caruth Jr. Foundation at the Communities Foundation of Texas in Dallas; and the Miles Foundation in Fort Worth. The PLS Brochure also thanked David M. Rubenstein – co-founder and co-CEO of The Carlyle Group, a private equity and investment management firm based in Washington, D.C., where George HW was an adviser and where W. has previously served on the board – as well as the Bank of America.

In April, a BofA press release said the bank had pledged $1 million to the George W. Bush Institute to support several leadership programs, including PLS. Since 2011, he added, BofA has given the institute nearly $3.5 million.

This year, there were five fellows in the Dallas-Fort Worth program. Like the other 53, who hailed from across the country, North Texans were asked to choose an issue or problem to work on during the six months. The center’s brochure said Thear Suzuki, who is Americas Advisory Talent Leader at professional services firm EY in Dallas, used his PLS experience to create a “leadership program that provides deep awareness and learning about invisible differences.” gender in the workplace”.

Ian Dailey, chief of staff of Linking the World, a Dallas-based nonprofit organization focused on national security, “undertook an assessment of the strategy needed to transform Linking the World…into a for-profit consulting firm which is perfected to help all stakeholders across the stabilization spectrum achieve their goals.

Finally, at 5:10 p.m., it was time for the soft, jazzy, marimba music that had been playing in the auditorium to fade and the graduation ceremony to begin. Over the next hour and a half, the ceremony proved smooth, dynamic, and expertly produced as the most effective infomercial ever. What was being sold, in this case, was not just the four presidential centers, but the idea that diversity, compassion and collaboration can solve the nation’s toughest problems. It’s a notion that has become the leadership mantra of America’s establishment – business, military, academic, media and philanthropic – especially in the era of President Donald Trump, the maverick independent group.

Daron Roberts, a 2015 Presidential Leadership Fellow, told the crowd in the auditorium that he learned from PLS that “empathy must come before strategy.” Holly Kuzmich, executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, said the program emphasizes “strong, compassionate and collaborative leadership, which is what our country needs.” Michael Hole of the Class of 2019 agreed, saying the PLS gave graduates “an unshakeable belief in the country we love and the power to stick together, despite our differences”.

Later, Clinton and Bush, former political rivals who say they became friends — Bush called Clinton his “brother with a different mother” — held the hosannas for the program from their chairs on stage. If people are “distraught about the future of our country,” Bush said, “I strongly suggest they meet with people from the PLS classes. The country is full of decent and compassionate citizens who are ready to serve. »

Clinton, for her part, recalled a military veteran whose legs were missing and a 6-foot-tall lesbian human rights activist — someone who was “the opposite of him.” The vet told the former president, “You helped us meet, and I’d be proud to fight for her.” Clinton added, “Diverse groups make better decisions than homogeneous groups.” And also: “If you can agree on a goal that both parties want to achieve, you can achieve it.”

In conclusion, the 58 Presidential Leadership Scholars were reminded that they were joining a cohort of 240 other graduates who had gone before them and that this powerful network would serve them well in the future. “People, stay in touch,” Bush advised the graduates. There didn’t seem to be much doubt that they would.

Kevin E. Boling