Celebrate President George H. W. Bush's 90th birthday with a rededication to national service

I’d like to share just a few reflections on George HW Bush on his birthday. Over the years, I’ve come to be a huge admirer and fan of President George Bush, and I want to add my name, energy and stories to the tributes to President Bush today as he and we celebrate his 90th birthday.

President’s Bush’s beliefs and spirit have been deeply woven into the work I have been lucky enough to do over the past two decades, first in the worlds of volunteering and service, and now in the work of America’s Promise to advocate for young people, especially those young people who are growing up in challenging circumstances and who struggle to have a real chance at the American Dream.

Just about twenty years ago, former Governor George Romney was growing more and more concerned about the challenges facing children and youth. He was convinced that the answer was a full-scale mobilization of community volunteering and national service. 

Gov. Romney believed it was the opportunity and responsibility of the presidents and first ladies to “bring a collective moral authority to the call for a ‘new citizenship.’” He called for a Presidents’ Summit and enlisted Senator Harris Wofford of the Corporation for National & Community Service and Bob Goodwin of the Points of Light Foundation to get it done.

I happened to be working for Sen. Wofford at the time and even though Gov. Romney died before his dream of a presidential summit became a reality, Harris loved the idea and didn’t intend to forget his pledge to Gov. Romney.

Harris started to put together the presidents’ summit by following former President Bush to a Points of Light event in Houston, and asking if he would be part of a presidents’ summit along the lines Gov. Romney had suggested. Without hesitation, President Bush said: “count me in” and without consultation enlisted his trusted aide, friend and the first White House Director of National Service, Gregg Petersmeyer, to represent him in the planning.  And we were off!  

The national call to service and tone of unity were front and center when President Bush joined President Clinton to unveil plans for the Summit at a special White House event on January 24, 1997. As co-chairs of the Summit, Presidents Bush and Clinton established that the event would be historic in both its purpose and its mood. President Bush said then:

“I hope that our joining together, the fact that our predecessors and their spouses ­– previous Presidents have also indicated support for this summit – sends a simple and a strong message. And that is that when it comes to addressing many of the problems we face as a nation, it isn't a question of partisan politics, of one side against another, it's a question of all pulling together for the common good.”

Pull together we did. Three thousand delegates attended the Summit including 30 sitting governors, 100 mayors, 145 community delegations and leaders from all sectors. 

America’s Promise, the organization I am honored to lead today, was born of that gathering, chaired by General Powell, and continues to be dedicated to the common purpose upon which it was founded:  rallying the people and institutions of America to give children and youth the resources they need to be successful in life.

America's Promise President's SummitBut that wasn’t all, of course. To get the full flavor of President Bush’s influence over our work you have to hit both the fast forward and rewind buttons. Under the leadership of our chair Alma Powell, America’s Promise set its sights on ending the high school dropout crisis – a central indicator of a young person’s wellbeing and the absolute minimum of education needed to have a chance to succeed in today’s economy. When we began this GradNation campaign, the overall high school graduation rate was just above 70 percent, and the graduation rate for minority youth hovered around 50 percent. It was, as General Powell said, a national catastrophe.

Again, we needed a full-scale mobilization. Every campaign needs a great galvanizing goal and we looked for the right one. What we found was a goal that President Bush had first articulated at that famous convening on education with the Governors in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1989. On that occasion, President Bush became the first president to set the goal of 90 percent on-time high school graduation. Each subsequent president has restated President Bush’s original goal.

And America’s Promise adopted the 90 percent on-time high school graduation goal as the central objective of our own GradNation campaign, and that goal has now taken hold.  Just this year we celebrated reaching the 80 percent milestone for the first time. That is big progress – a 10 percent point gain in just a decade.  And if progress continues at the same rate as the past few years, we are on-track to reach the 90 percent goal by 2020. Reaching that big goal, originally set by President Bush, will mean a much brighter future for millions of young people, their families and communities, and a much brighter economic future for the nation.

In my work, I see, feel and celebrate President Bush’s contributions every day. His leadership set us on a great course. His unending optimism, kindness, drive, and good spirit keep us on that great course, even when the challenges are also great. 

So, a big happy birthday and thank you to President Bush. Our birthday gift and tribute to you is a promise, of course, straight from the declaration you signed in 1997: we promise to continue our work to “claim society’s problems as our own, pulling together, leading by example, and lifting American lives.”