Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were scheduled to show up 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 2019 class of Presidential Leadership Scholars, an executive-style leadership program that Bush and Clinton started five years ago.
Media types — reporters and TV camera operators — had been asked to report at 3 p.m. Thursday to the center’s interior loading dock. There, we submitted to a “Secret Service Sweep” and let a bomb-sniffing dog check out our gear. Then the center’s communications staff led everyone through a labyrinth of long hallways and into the auditorium.
Since there were about 90 minutes to kill before the ceremony began, I decided to have a look at some of the art on the center’s walls. The Presidential Leadership Scholars — 30 men and 28 women, more than half of them of color — were chatting in small groups in the center’s meeting space and lobby. A few were sitting or standing beneath 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 Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The portrait by Mark Balma, called “The Ties That Bind,” had been 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 grouping of sharp-needled cactus plants. Across the way, a giant painting called “The Dream Keeper,” by Fort Worth’s Daniel Blagg, showed a man dressed in white using a water hose to clean off the colossal, sculpted, presidential heads on Mount Rushmore. Just around the corner was another work, “Grand Ol’ Gang,” by Western artist Andy Thomas. It portrayed a jocular game of draw poker being played by eight Republican presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, W. and his father, George H.W. Bush.
The auditorium itself was important-looking and plush, with red-velvet seats and muted lighting and a polished wooden stage with several comfortable chairs placed just so. Multiple tasteful logos had been placed on the walls for the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, whose aim, the Center says, is to train the next generation of leaders “through the lens of the presidential experiences” of W., the elder Bush, Clinton and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Every year since 2015, about 60 “mid-career professionals” from the worlds of business, government, the military and the nonprofit sector have been selected to participate in the program, which offers about 20 days of on-site instruction and requires a six-month commitment. After an introductory session in Washington, D.C., in February, this year’s class spent three days at the George H.W. 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), before last week’s graduation ceremony in Dallas.
During the various sessions, the Center says, the 2019 scholars learned Vision and Communication, Decision Making, Persuasion and Influence, and Strategic Partnerships from the likes of W.’s brother Neil Bush, Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, LBJ’s daughter Luci Baines Johnson, and W. and Clinton themselves.
The program, including travel expenses, is fully paid for by the presidential centers, thanks to contributions by foundations, individuals and corporations. A spokeswoman for the Bush Center 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 has provided at least $10 million for the program, according to news releases from the foundation); the W.W. 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 Washington, D.C.-based private equity and investment management firm where George H.W. was an adviser and where W. once served on the board — as well as the Bank of America.
In April, a BofA news release said the bank had committed $1 million to the George W. Bush Institute to support several leadership programs, including the PLS. Since 2011, it added, BofA has given the Institute nearly $3.5 million.
This year, there were five scholars in the program from Dallas-Fort Worth. Like the 53 others, who came from all over the country, the North Texans were asked to choose an issue or problem to work on during the six months. The center’s brochure said that Thear Suzuki, who is Americas Advisory Talent Leader at the professional-services firm EY in Dallas, used her PLS experience to create a “leadership program that provides deep awareness and learning about invisible gender differences in the workplace.”
Ian Dailey, chief of staff at Linking the World, a Dallas-based nonprofit focused on national security, “undertook an assessment of the strategy required to transform Linking the World … into a for-profit consulting firm that is honed to assist all stakeholders across the stabilization spectrum to accomplish their goals.”
Finally, at 5:10 p.m., it was time for the soft, jazzy, marimba music that had been piped into the auditorium to fade out, and for the graduation to begin. Over the next hour and a half, the ceremony would prove to be slick, dynamic and expertly produced, like the most effective infomercial ever. What was being sold, in this case, wasn’t 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 — corporate, military, academic, media and philanthropic — especially in the era of President Donald Trump, the maverick one-man band.
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Daron Roberts, a 2015 Presidential Leadership Scholar, told the crowd in the auditorium that he had learned from PLS that “empathy must precede strategy.” Holly Kuzmich, executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, said the program stresses “strong, compassionate, collaborative leadership, which is what our country needs.” Michael Hole of the 2019 class agreed, saying the PLS had afforded the graduates “an unshakeable belief in the country we love, and the power of standing together, despite our differences.”
Later Clinton and Bush, one-time political rivals who say they’ve become friends — Bush has called Clinton his “brother with a different mother” — kept up the hosannas for the program from their chairs onstage. If people are “discouraged about the future of our country,” Bush said, “I strongly suggest they meet people from PLS classes. The country is full of decent, compassionate citizens who are willing to serve.”
Clinton, for his 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 would be proud to fight for her.” Added Clinton: “Diverse groups make better decisions than homogeneous ones.” And also: “If you can agree on an objective that both sides want to achieve, you can get there.”
In closing, the 58 Presidential Leadership Scholars were reminded that they were joining a cohort of 240 other graduates who had preceded them, and that this powerful network would be helpful to them going forward. “People, stay in touch,” Bush counseled the grads. There didn’t seem to be much doubt that they would.