Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, sitting side by side on stage at Southern Methodist University Thursday night, offered presidential insights, shared laughs and anecdotes from their unlikely political friendship, and shared their next gift to the world: their newest crop of Presidential Leadership Scholars.
A combined effort of four presidential libraries and centers including the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library Center in College Station and the L.B.J. Presidential Library in Austin, the Presidential Leadership Scholars program selects a diverse group of community, business, and philanthropic leaders from across the country for weeks of leadership training that includes the advice and counsel of the former presidents themselves.
On stage at the George W. Bush Institute at SMU, Bush and Clinton used their own unique friendship as an example of what they'd like to see their scholars achieve.
"It was a natural ability to respect and like each other," Mr. Bush said of his friendship with Mr. Clinton. "Because he's called a brother with a different mother. He hangs out in Maine more than I do," Mr. Bush joked as a crowd of more than 300 broke into laughter.
Mr. Clinton talked about a connection made, in part, because they humbly accepted each other's help while in office, including the help of Bush's father President George H.W. Bush whom Clinton followed in the presidency. As for Bush 43, he joked it was also the fact they were born just 44 days apart. Mr. Clinton said they are currently in that 44-day span of each year when Mr. Bush is officially one year older.
"I said, 'I'm calling you on bended knee because this begins my 44 days of respect for my elders,'" Mr. Clinton said as the audience laughed again.
But what their friendship really put on display Thursday night was their 60 most recent proteges - teachers, social workers, doctors, lawyers, military veterans and non-profit CEO's from across the country. In classes and seminars at the Bush 41, Bush 43, Clinton, and LBJ libraries, they learned leadership and decision making from the best in politics and business. Scholars like SreyRam Kuy, a Cambodian refugee who is now a surgeon and the chief medical officer for Louisiana Medicaid.
"It is truly amazing what life will yield when you take that risk and work together to ensure that everyone has a chance," Kuy said.
And scholars like Meghan Ogilvie whose Washington, D.C. bakery called DogTag Inc. trains veterans and wounded warriors to start small businesses of their own.
"It has been nothing less than phenomenal, and I would say life changing," Ogilvie said of the Presidential Leadership Scholars program and the graduation celebration held at the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
"We've got people of good heart, good skills, willing to serve others," Mr. Bush said when asked why the program made him so optimistic about the future.
Mr. Clinton put it this way -- politics is divisive now. This group of scholars, from all races, religions, and political persuasions....is not.
"One of the things that's wrong with American today, that bothers me more than anything else about our future is that we have separated ourselves into like-minded communities," Clinton said.
Mr. Bush also said that presidential libraries and centers can become irrelevant over time as they lose their focus and impact. The Presidential Leadership Scholars program is an effort to keep that from happening. The gift of two former rivals is to turn out a new group of scholars each year who, despite their differing backgrounds, are ready to fight for their country together.
“There’s a good chance we’re looking at a future president among the 60 scholars here,” Mr. Bush said.