On October 19 at Lincoln Center in New York City, an important and inspiring conference took place hosted by the George W. Bush Institute. The conference addressed the issue of “The Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In the World.”
It was an honor for ADL to have been invited to attend this event. (I was among a small select group of our leaders, including ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, to have been in the audience that day). The presence of President Bush and his wife, Laura, and their moving presentations – hers at the outset of the program, his at the end – added luster to a spectacular morning.
On the face of it, the program was non-political. President Trump’s name came up only once or twice and in passing. Yet, despite this or maybe because of this, it was one of the most important and hopeful political events in a long time.
The main subject was American values, the importance of those values here and abroad and how we transmit and prioritize those values.
Coming soon after Steve Bannon’s declaration of war on the Republican establishment, here was an unflinching presentation and defense of values that have underlay the Republican Party, and indeed, America itself for decades.
It was best summed up by the words of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who participated in a remarkable panel with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Nikki Haley, America's United Nations Ambassador.
Secretary Rice described what she referred to as the current Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Populism, Nativism, Isolationism and Protectionism. She and others spoke about how these ideas are undermining America at home and abroad and eroding the values that have made America great and a magnet for the world.
Whether it was President Bush or Secretary Albright or Secretary Rice, there was a consistent message: we need to continue to be open to the world, we need to educate our population, particularly our young people, on the virtues of our democracy and civil society. And we need to be open to new immigrants who have reinvigorated America time and again.
One of the hallmarks of the conversation, whether from those who were right of center or those who were left of center, was the optimism about America that pervaded it: optimism about America’s past – if you will, the upward arc of our history – and optimism about the future, the ability of democracy to win out here and around the world.
But it won't happen on its own, it requires a willingness to listen to those with whom we disagree, a focus on constitutional education, a need to raise expectations for those who feel left out and alienated, and a patience reflecting reality that change does not happen overnight.
What was so striking about this event was that it showed that we are too simplistic in looking at polarization in this country as that between the left and the right. Surely there are different policy perspectives based on ideology; they have always existed, they are not a bad thing.
The current challenges, however, are about democracy itself, the sustainability of freedom as a fundamental principle, the willingness to be open, in every sense of the word, to opposing views, to different alienated populations in our society, to new faces who grace our shores. This was not a message of Republicans against Democrats, liberals versus conservatives, the right against the left. Rather it was a statement of getting back to first principles that should bind most Americans and that have been America’s strength throughout our history.
It offered a path forward to get beyond our current stagnation and divisiveness.
It speaks to reviving civic education concerning the responsibilities as well as the privileges of being an American. It speaks to the issue of what it means to be an American, as opposed to so many other nations’ identities, not based on ethnicity or religion but on commitment to the idea of America and its Constitution and it speaks to the potential partnerships rather than rivalry between the private and public sectors in addressing the many social and economic challenges facing communities.
The headlines about this conference will inevitably be about the not so opaque criticisms of President Trump by former President Bush and others. Those criticisms were real even without any name-calling.
But the real story here is the hope for common ground that this conference offered as a way to get past the current moment. It will be tough going to achieve the path articulated by the Bush conference. But it offers hope beyond the divides. That in itself was inspiring.