BIDDEFORD, Maine On September 27, more than a thousand people assembled in UNE’s Harold Alfond Forum on the Biddeford Campus to witness President Bill Clinton and former Governor Jeb Bush participate in a moderated discussion in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of President George H.W. Bush’s Education Summit, held at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1989.
The UNE event, which served as the University’s 10th annual George and Barbara Bush Distinguished Lecture, was made possible through a partnership with the George & Barbara Bush Foundation and through the generosity of Peter and Ros Whalon. The audience was composed of students, faculty, professional staff, members of the public and special guests, including Maine Governor Janet Mills and former Maine Governor John Baldacci. Roger B. Porter, IBM Professor of Business and Government at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and former assistant to the president for economic and domestic policy under George H.W. Bush, served as the event moderator.
In what was only the third time in the history of the United States that a president convened all 50 governors to discuss a matter of national importance, President Bush’s Education Summit of 1989 successfully created a unified set of national educational goals at a time when the country feared that its public education system was failing. The summit’s establishment of national standards of practice and accountability in education, known as the National Education Goals, was revolutionary at the time. As UNE President James Herbert noted in his welcoming remarks, “This work brought data and research at long last into the process of creating education policy.”
“It changed the definition of what being a governor was. You could not be a decent governor … you could not cross the threshold of acceptability unless you were serious about … education and were serious about kids’ futures.”— President Bill Clinton on the magnitude of the 1989 Education Summit
Alexander “Hap” Ellis, III, chairman of the George & Barbara Bush Foundation, who offered introductory remarks at the UNE event, echoed President Herbert’s affirmation of the importance of the Education Summit, noting that “the four years that George and Barbara Bush served in the White House were four years that changed our world for the better.”
As distinguished guest speakers at the event, Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States, and Jeb Bush, the 43rd governor of the state of Florida, spoke to the UNE audience for more than an hour and a half. Clinton, former governor of Arkansas, offered a unique historical perspective, having served as the co-chairman of the National Governors Association’s education task force and one of the leaders in forging and drafting the summit’s goals – goals that were endorsed by all 50 governors and announced at President Bush’s January 1990 State of the Union Address. “It changed the definition of what being a governor was,” Clinton said of the summit. “You could not be a decent governor … you could not cross the threshold of acceptability unless you were serious about … education and were serious about kids’ futures.”
Jeb Bush brought other important viewpoints to the discussion – both as the son of the president responsible for convening the summit, and of Barbara Bush whose lifelong passion was education and literacy, and as a governor of a state that experienced a significantly positive transformation in its educational outcomes under his leadership.
Moderator Roger Porter shared with the audience video footage of President Bush at the Education Summit and of first lady Barbara Bush speaking about the importance of education. In fact, her lifelong commitment to education was a common theme throughout the event. Jeb Bush said of his mother, “She was committed to adult and family literacy … [It] is really essential for us as a nation to get beyond the silos of the different buckets of pre-K, K-12, community college … In reality, this should be lifelong. The first teachers of every child are their parents, and if they can’t read, then that makes it harder and harder for children to start school ready to learn. She just believed that to her core.”
“Most of what really matters to us in life requires us to reaffirm our common humanity. And both of them did that.”— President Bill Clinton, speaking about President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush
Clinton praised both Barbara and President Bush for viewing education as a universal, rather than a partisan, issue. “Most of what really matters to us in life requires us to reaffirm our common humanity. And both of them did that,” he stated.
In fact, the championing of bipartisanship or nonpartisanship was a motif repeated throughout the conversation, as both Clinton and Bush recognized that the ambitious work of the Education Summit could only have been accomplished with the spirit of collaboration among the governors that pervaded the event – a spirit whose tone was set by the summit’s convener, President Bush.
Clinton recalled that in his own opening remarks at the Education Summit, he stated that he was there “to praise the president” – a comment that drew a rebuke from a Democrat in Congress. Clinton shared his response to the congressman: “I said, ‘We need to grow up as a country and brag on people in the other party when we agree with what they’re doing and still be able to disagree with them honestly. What do you say we all act like three-dimensional people instead of two-dimensional cartoons?’”
“The belief that you can be civil to one another, that you can be kind and generous, that you can treat people the way you want to be treated – these are virtues that are timeless. And I think we should start punishing the politicians that ignore them and start rewarding the politicians that do differently.”— Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush
Clinton argued that one of the things that made the Education Summit so impactful was its demonstration of bipartisanship at its finest. “I think Charlottesville showed … that the political system and the people operating within it can respond to a great national challenge in an almost completely positive way and can highlight their differences in a non-attacking way that enables us to have honest debate,” he shared.
In the context of bipartisanship, Bush brought up the “golden rule” instilled in him by his parents. “The belief that you can be civil to one another, that you can be kind and generous, that you can treat people the way you want to be treated – these are virtues that are timeless,” he said, “And I think we should start punishing the politicians that ignore them and start rewarding the politicians that do differently.”
“Today in America, we are in these tribal … camps where consensus can’t be built, where people view someone who disagrees with them as the enemy, rather than someone that might just be wrong or someone who might have a different view. Charlottesville proves that you can go a different path, and our country desperately needs that right now. We desperately need to at least focus on the things we can agree on.”— Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush
He agreed with Clinton that the Education Summit was a testament to the country’s ability to do great things when Republicans and Democrats work together and treat one another with respect, “The legacy of Charlottesville … was that you had every governor minus one and the president – a very diverse group of people, different parties – coming together in a totally bipartisan or nonpartisan way to say, “This is important. This is important to do.’ Our country does well when we do that: when we agree we don’t fight… Today in America, we are in these tribal … camps where consensus can’t be built, where people view someone who disagrees with them as the enemy, rather than someone that might just be wrong or someone who might have a different view. Charlottesville proves that you can go a different path, and our country desperately needs that right now. We desperately need to at least focus on the things we can agree on.”
One thing that Bush, Clinton, and Porter all seemed to agree on was their appreciation for a very special thank-you gift bestowed upon them by President Herbert at the close of the event. They each received a pair of UNE-branded argyle socks designed by none other than President George H.W. Bush and embroidered with his initials.