Broadening horizons, seeing humanity in the world and fearlessly forging ahead in changing times is the key to successfully living a life of service, former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton said Thursday during graduation ceremonies of the fourth Presidential Leadership Scholars Program.
The two men -- who became close friends after Clinton's presidency -- alternately bantered with each other and became serious and sometimes animated as they answered questions posed by scholars.
The scholars program -- which draws on the resources of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, the Clinton Foundation, the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation -- selects its participants from a diverse pool of applicants that includes doctors, military veterans, corporate professionals and public servants from around the nation.
This year's 59 graduates join 181 alumni of the program who completed a rigorous six-month commitment. The students focused on finding solutions to problems on the local, national or international level using insight from the presidential experiences of Clinton and Bush, plus Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, and the late President Lyndon B. Johnson.
At Thursday's ceremony at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, the former presidents sat in armchairs in the front of about 100 people and took turns answering questions from scholars on subjects that ranged from raising healthy children to running for public office.
Bush didn't shy away when asked about the current immigration crisis in which President Donald Trump's "zero-tolerance" policy caused scores of children to be separated from their families and be sent to government shelters or foster care hundreds of miles away.
"I'm disturbed by the debate that's taking place because I think it undermines the goodness of America," Bush said. "It doesn't recognize the valuable contribution immigrants make to our society, and it obscures the fact that the system is broken and needs to be fixed."
Clinton said the current atmosphere is turning three-dimensional human beings into cartoon characters.
"We have to find ways to get along," Clinton said.
Bush shook his head and said people need to learn to respect someone else's opinion, even if it differs from their own.
"Hopefully, this program has broadened your horizons," Bush said, speaking to the graduates.
When asked how he would encourage a wider firsthand knowledge of the value of service, Clinton said more people with language skills are needed to go into the diplomatic service or the Peace Corps -- a government program established by then-President John F. Kennedy in 1961 that sends volunteers abroad to work with underdeveloped countries.
"I would like to see AmeriCorps expanded," Clinton added.
AmeriCorps is a program that Clinton created with the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. AmeriCorps volunteers serve communities around the nation to meet education, public safety, environmental and health care needs.
Clinton added that he'd like to see the scholars program amplified in every state.
"Service is very important," Clinton said.
Bush said helping other countries "alleviate disease and poverty and hunger is of our national interest."
"Obviously, the United States can't solve every problem, but we can set priorities," Bush said. "And one such priority in my administration was a pandemic destroying an entire generation of people on the continent of Africa. My view was: If America isn't willing to stand for the protection of innocent life, well, what are we all about?"
Clinton said that in the past, the answer tended to be about raising money, but now he looks "for ways we can empower people to take control of their own destiny."
"We need to do more of that, but I also think we should do more," Clinton said.
When asked about improving the health and diet of the nation's children, Clinton said school lunch programs need more support from the state and local level, and children should be taught healthy diet and exercise habits.
"I started my granddaughter growing a garden when she was 3," Clinton said, speaking of his first grandchild, Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky, born in 2014. "We ate out of that garden all summer long."
Clinton encouraged more programs like the garden tended by students at Gateway Elementary School in St. Louis.
Bush quipped, "Just don't grow any beets."
Former first lady Michelle Obama, an advocate of childhood nutrition, banned beets from being planted in the White House garden.
Both men encouraged the graduates to take risks and learn from defeats, and they praised the scholars for their commitment to living a life of service.
"I get asked all the time if I am optimistic about America," Bush said. "I say, 'Damn right I am.'"
Tina Tran asks a question of former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush during Thursday’s graduation ceremony. Tran is one of the scholars.
A Section on 07/13/2018