Dialogue and difference: Nurturing a modern civility in American politics
Watch PrezFest 2019
The Presidential Ideas Festival was held May 21-23, 2019.
About this video
May 21, 2019
Jean Becker, Stephanie Streett, Thomas Walls (moderator)
By Vanessa Revilla
In the face of mounting political polarization and distrust, instances of genuine sympathy, collaboration, and companionship in American politics are rate. Jean Becker, former chief of staff for George H. W. Bush, and Stephanie Streett, executive director for the Clinton foundation, used the historic companionship of Presidents Bush and Clinton as a framework for modern civility in an examination of engaged and honest civil discourse, hosted by UVA's Thomas Walls.
Walls set the tone for this discussion by reading aloud the letter former President Bush gave incoming President Bill Clinton. “I wish you great happiness here, "it read. "You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
It is difficult, Walls suggested, to imagine Democratic and Republican politicians sharing those sentiments today.
Becker and Streett both offered explanations as to how and why their former bosses looked past their political divisions to formulate the respect and, ultimately, friendship that is apparent in this letter.
Becker explained, “[Bush] was rooting for President Clinton. He wanted President Clinton to succeed because it was more important to him that America succeed than for the man who kicked him out of the Oval Office to go down.”
Streett agreed and challenged the audience to also consider the global significance of amicable relations between parties.
“Seeing, I think, the former presidents and first ladies together is a powerful symbol to everyone,” said Street. “People in other countries were stunned to see the two [President Bush and President Clinton] of them together. And what we heard over and over again was ‘this would never happen in our country.’ You would never see two political rivals come together, travel together, be kind to each other.”
Becker and Streett then offered first-hand accounts of the genuine friendship between the two.
Becker suggested that the key moment for their friendship was in January of 2005, when then-President George W. Bush asked the pair to represent the United States in South Asia following following a devastating tsunami. The two then campaigned across the United States, raising unprecedented levels of private donations for the tsunami victims.
Becker recalled, “They really bonded over the tsunami, and what happened is they became the disaster duo.”
Following the tsunami, Clinton and the elder Bush continued working together to bring comfort and hope to Americans in the wake of tragedies. In particular, Streett and Becker spoke on the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, which raised over 150 million dollars for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, as well as their joint appearance at the funeral for Pope John Paul II.
Becker summed up the extent of their friendship: “Internally, the Bush family called Clinton ‘a brother by another mother.’”
Both Becker and Streett view the presidents’ friendship as a model for the open-mindedness and bipartisan respect were desperately need in today’s political climate.
Becker pointed out that both Presidents Clinton and Bush sometimes alienated their respective parties by implementing policies that citrated with accepted party lines. “It seems like right now it’s always about the next election cycle," she continued. "So I think somehow we’ll get back there—we will absolutely get back there—if we can just remind [politicians] that they work for us and that we want them to do what’s best for the country.”
Exhibitions of so-called “bipartisan civility” among politicians and citizens have not disappeared completely, but they seem to occur only in times of adversity.
“We came together after 9/11. Why is it always the worst of times that brings us together? Someone needs to figure out how we can come together in the best of times,” said Becker. “I think the key is just to listen more, and to turn off TV, and get off social media, and read more, and get out there in the community more.”
Street emphasized the importance of actually talking to, rather than talking past, people with different opinions. “It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s not my way or the highway, or I’m smarter than you,” she explained. “To me, civility is really all about resetting the table and knowing that at the end of the day everyone has to have some skin in the game.”
Becker agreed, “We need to be able to put aside whatever our smaller differences are and figure out how to come together. . . . And that, again, is all modeled on this unique friendship between the two former presidents.”