Hersh joins leaders of other presidential centers in advocating for the hard work of democracy

Learn more about Margot Habiby.
Margot Habiby
Deputy Director, Communications
George W. Bush Institute
George W. Bush Presidential Center's CEO Ken Hersh speaking on the Defining the Next Era of Democracy and Public Diplomacy panel at the Milken Institute's 2024 Global Conference.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center’s core values of freedom, opportunity, accountability, and compassion “don’t have a left or a right,” President and CEO Ken Hersh said this week on a panel with leaders of presidential centers and foundations across the country.

At a Milken Institute conference, the panel elaborated on their call for “civil dialogue” and for Americans to “respect democratic institutions and rights; uphold safe, secure, and accessible elections; and contribute to local, state, or national improvement” in a joint statement in support of U.S. democratic principles that they issued in September.

Drafted by the Bush Center, the statement was signed by 12 other presidential centers and foundations at a critical time when Americans seem more divided than ever and inclined to demonize their political opponents, panelists said. They reiterated their joint commitment to freedom and democracy in the United States and around the world.

“It was really quite stunning that we needed to get together to make a statement, a very simple statement, reaffirming our commitment to democratic principles, civic participation, and treating each other as human beings,” Hersh said on the panel. “You would have thought that we released the secret formula to Coca-Cola.”

Valerie Jarrett, CEO of the Obama Foundation, said that signing the letter was “the easiest yes that President Obama has ever given. As soon as I mentioned it, he said, `Of course, there’s not a word in that letter that we disagree with.’”

Former presidents and their foundations and centers “have far more in common than we have differences” in their post-presidencies, she said. “We might debate policy issues, but we can certainly all agree on the content of the letter.”

Civility is a key component of the legacy of President Ronald Reagan, said David Trulio, President and CEO of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. The organization recently formed a center on civility and democracy to pay tribute to that and work to “promote constructive solutions to address the deep divisions and discord in America.”

Reagan was “a man of great principle who was able to compromise,” Trulio said. “He wouldn’t have been able to get anything done without Democrats.”

Paige Alexander, CEO of the Carter Center, discussed how the organization pivoted to working on strengthening democracy in the United States after 40 years of work monitoring over 100 elections around the world.

Kevin Thrum, CEO of the Clinton Foundation said that President Bill Clinton “has always believed” that “we need to continue to demonstrate that democracy delivers value.”

That’s a global concern, as the world is trending toward autocracies, and that’s not good for the world, the Obama Foundation’s Jarrett said.

“At the Bush Center, we are unapologetic globalists,” the Bush Center’s Hersh said. “In the United States, we don’t always get it right, but that doesn’t mean we quit being active around the world. We can see who fills our void when we’re not there.”

He called, for example, for the reauthorization of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which has saved 25 million lives primarily in sub-Saharan Africa over the past 21 years. He also cited the work of the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program between the Bush Center, the Clinton Presidential Center, the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation, and the LBJ Foundation as “a breath of fresh air” when it comes to finding solutions to the country’s most challenging problems. “They don’t talk about which party,” he said. “That’s so wonky.”

The Carter Center’s Alexander noted that former presidents and presidential centers have a unique platform, with living presidents still able to call attention to issues and in some cases move the needle. So it’s important that the country and the world see the centers representing presidents of different parties and ideologies come together and model good behavior.

“All of us know from our bosses that it was a lot harder to make decisions when they were president because there were so many politics involved,” she said. “And now that we’re running their foundations and doing this type of work, it’s much more obvious to us what we need to do.”

For example, she cited an advertisement during the pandemic showing President and Mrs. Bush, President and Mrs. Obama, President and Secretary Clinton, and President and Mrs. Carter getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and urging Americans to get the shots.

“[In the U.S.], the fact that former presidents have the ability to create a platform as citizens and develop foundations with followings, with teams, with values, is really something that is unique to our country. We should celebrate that that’s something that we do together,” the Bush Center’s Hersh said.

Watch the conversation.