Bill Clinton, after leaving the White House, and even after having been viciously attacked by some while President, accepted, without hesitation, an invitation from our country's new President to join yet another former President, the senior President George Herbert Walker Bush (another good and decent man) in an effort to aid victims of the Tsunami, and then later Hurricane Katrina. Better still, they worked well together.
On an even more practical level, I respect that the man (Mr. George W. Bush) is our President, and if I am foolish enough to root for his failure, then I am also rooting for my own — for we are one country, with one President. I remember what civil rights icon Ambassador Young told me one day, giving me general advise about life, "…John, don't be cynical. Be skeptical if you want to, but have hope."
Those who know me also know that I am squarely bi-partisan when it comes to Operation HOPE and the work we do in under-served communities. These communities have enough problems and handicaps. They don't need yet another, with me and others slicing up the pie of hope and help into segments that we personally favor. The only question I ask these days is, "can you help?" The answer, and whether or not you follow through, speaks to character.
Now, you can choose to play games with partisan politics, and you can even make sure that someone loses, while simultaneously claiming success or a "win" for yourself, but when partisan politics is your compass and operating philosophy in life, it is damn hard to say "progress for all," in the same breath.
It should be noted that no one I speak to can tell me with any certainty, other than to guess, the political party of one Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He made his party the poor, and the disenfranchised his only political lobby. Likewise, when people occasionally ask me about my own politics, I tell them that I not representing the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party, but the Get It Done Party. I just want to Get It Done. Whoever can deliver meaningful results for the under-served communities I am passionate about, and have dedicated my life too, well, that's my leader.
And so, today I want to commend, not criticize, one George W. Bush.
You see, Rev. Cecil Murray, then pastor of First A.M.E. Church, John W. Mack, then president of the Los Angeles Urban League, and Bishop Charles E. Blake, of West Angeles Church of God in Christ, and I led a diverse group of community leaders that extended an invitation to President Bush to come to South Central Los Angeles on the 10th anniversary of the Rodney King Riots, on April 29th, 2002. To say that I was criticized by some at the time for doing so would be an under-statement — but it was the right thing to do. And to his credit, the President showed up — knowing that he would be criticized too. Damn if he did it, and damned if he didn't.
The President should be commended for “showing up” in South Central Los Angeles.
Of course, the President's decision might have been made in part out of some political necessity or protocol of history, but I also know now that the President chose to make this particular trip decision, to go or not to go to South Central Los Angeles, personally. It was not a decision made by senior White House staff. It was his alone.
A year or so later, I remember someone approaching me in an airport and asking, “John, why are you hanging around with this President?,” and further suggesting that he (the President) would never do anything to help me, or the communities I cared so much about. My answer was simple. I "hang around" the President, so to speak, first and foremost because, well he is THE PRESIDENT. Or as civil rights leader Dr. Dorothy Height once told me, when asked why she has had relationships with every President since World War II, she responded "last time I checked, it was one President at a time." That one is not difficult.
We don’t have six of them (U.S. Presidents), nor do we have two of them, we have one of them, and whoever he or she is, if they call and say they would like to talk to you, your only question should be “what time?” Beyond that, he is also a fairly nice man, and where we might have a difference of opinion or view, it is my job to provide him and his team with information I have, that they may not. My job is to help. Beyond this, I have also learned that it helps all involved if we don't take differences of opinion or view, as a personal attack on our own opinion or view. As my pastor and spiritual mentor Rev. Dr. Cecil "Chip" Murray once told me, "we can disagree without being disagreeable. "
I think we also can learn a thing or two here from the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., interacting in the 1960's first with President John F. Kennedy, who had good intentions but hesitated politically to act legislatively on civil rights, and later on with President Lyndon Johnson, whom no one suspected at the time was a particular friend to civil rights, and one with whom Dr. King had strong disagreements with respect to the Vietnam War, which President Johnson had escalated during his Presidency. This said, Dr. King decided that he could disagree with Johnson without being disagreeable. In other words, he did not make his differences of opinions personal. He not only gave the President the benefit of the doubt, he went so far as to genuinely believe that he (Johnson) would do the right thing when provided the right political opportunity. History has proved Dr. King right, even though at various times during his life he was called! everything from Dr. Martin Luther Koon, to Dr. Martin Loser King, to an Uncle Tom, and at times even worse.
For four years following the visit by President Bush to South Central Los Angeles to visit me and other leaders from the city, I sent follow up proposals and made personal visits to the White House, and with members of the President's cabinet, and while everyone was very gracious and received me well, nothing much happened. And while at times I grew frustrated with the process, I never gave up on my ideas, nor the President.
Americans reflect regularly on the power and inspiration of Dr. King's famous "I Have A Dream" speech, given on the Mall that 28th day of August, 1963, but what most people don't know is that Dr. King had given that same speech more than 100 times prior to that day, when "all the stars lined up to help create history." Dr. King never gave up on hope, and that inspired me in turn to never give up on the power of my ideas to help America's most vulnerable; giving them the essential tools to help them help themselves. And so, I kept calling on the President and his counselors, and thankfully, they kept the door open, and kept listening. And then, having little to do with me, but a lot to do with good timing and the President's willingness to focus on the issue, given all the other competing priorities around him, in April 2007, "all the stars lined up to create a little history."
Responding in part to a passionate letter I sent to the President in early April 2007, during Financial Literacy Month enacted by our U.S. Congress, the President agreed to call a historic, first ever meeting of financial literacy experts in the Roosevelt Room at the White House to talk about the relevancy and importance of financial literacy as a new priority in America. I was invited to attend the meeting as one of seven outside experts who sat down for more than an hour for a focused give and take discussion with the President and his Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, and Secretary of Housing & Urban Development Alphonso Jackson. It quickly became obvious that this was going to be a very substantive meeting, as the President was fully engaged on the issue, opening up the meeting and then asking me to lead off the discussion. I did the best I could, but it was clear to me that this would have simply become yet another meeting for the history books if the President hadn't taken action that day, first by extending the meeting and delaying an important scheduled call with a Head of State, which he almost never did, and next by asking Secretary Paulson to come back with a set of recommendations around "what the government can do."
The meeting broke up and we all returned to our respective cities, and the President returned to other business, but in the weeks ahead the issue never lost its focus. And while Secretary Paulson deserves considerable credit for keeping the process moving, insuring that the Treasury team continued to understand this to be a priority, including calling me in for a face to face follow up meeting with him personally, and then other meetings with other senior Treasury staff, again, none of this would have happened without the President's continued support. I cannot stress this enough, inasmuch as it is hard to keep something focused within the walls of the White House for a mere one week's time, but try 4 months, which is the stretch of time during which I spoke to and met with senior White House and Treasury Department staff — weekly. Every week.
Without checking in with me (meaning, it was his decision completely, and not a factor of any of my perceived influence or input) President George W. Bush quietly announced his intention to create the President's Council on Financial Literacy, as one part of the federal government's overall response to the mushrooming sub-prime mortgage crisis. It appears the President was indeed listening on that day in April 2007. It appears that the President and his people were listening, all along.
True enough, it didn't happen when I wanted it to:
…it didn't happen in 2000, when I first wrote the President about this critically important issue.
…it didn't happen in 2002, following the President's visit at my invitation to South Central Los Angeles.
…it didn't happen in 2004, or 2005, when I sent numerous proposals asking the Executive Branch of our government to act.
…it didn't happen following Katrina, when my spirits were at their lowest point in my 15 year struggle for silver rights for the poor and the underserved.
…it didn't happen in 2006, as I sent forth even more ideas and recommendations.
But in the summer of 2007, with little help from me, and oddly enough, in response to no new proposal from me to the President and White House staff, time and opportunity finally met on their own terms, and "the stars lined up to create a little history in America."
Creation of the President's Council on Financial Literacy will be a first in American history, and having it in place and institutionalized will benefit the poor, the working poor, the middle class who find themselves now stuck in the grips of the sub-prime crisis, and even the rich alike. This it seems, is the way it was supposed to be all along. "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plan."
I am honored and thankful beyond words that the President, this President, President George W. Bush, decided to act, and on his own counsel.
I write today to commend President Bush for taking action, when political convenience might have suggested otherwise.
I write today, to give credit to the President, where credit is due.
For me, this is the beginning of the silver rights movement, made real in real people's lives, all across America.
Of course, this President, nor any other President, rarely moves agendas like this in isolation, and so let me thank all those, most of whom are unseen, who consistently "did the real work" to insure that financial literacy education and empowerment became a new American value in this great country; from former White House staffers including Ed Ingle and Brian Jones, to Daniel Heath, formerly of the National Economic Council, to Bryan Corbett, my most consistent bridge at the White House during the process, along with his colleague and counterpart David Nason at Treasury, to my new friend Julie Cram who heads the Office of Public Liaison for the President and who arranged the original meeting with the President that got all of this going, to U.S. Treasurer Anna Cabral, who is probably the Administration's biggest booster and promoter of financial literacy, to Karl Rove, whom must have given cover to the issue, or put simply, nothing would have happened to begin with (note: I remember fondly the passionate conversations Karl and I had leading up to the visit to South Central, when he finally decided to trust a young man he had never met, with the fair treatment of the President of the United States of America he knew well), and then there is my dear friend and my biggest booster over the long-haul, Barry Jackson, who at that time headed strategic initiatives for the President, and who was just recently and justifiably promoted. Finally, a special thank you to Dan Iannicola and Treasury's Office of Financial Education, and the many others I have not named here, in and out of government. Lastly, a thank you to U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, a man meant for this time.
I know that it is easier to criticize than it is to commend.
I know that it is easier to outline with clarity "what we are against," rather than calling forth a powerful future vision of "what we are for," and then finding a way to take responsibility and to do something about it.
I know that I put myself at some personal risk of criticism and personal attack, once again, for choosing to commend the President, first for "showing up" in my community, and then for doing something to help my community, and others like it, when the far easier and popular sport consist simply of bashing him, at every turn — but commending him was the right thing to do.
If you are going to criticize leaders when they do bad, then you must in turn commend them when they do good. Otherwise, you are a nothing more than a hypocrite.
As a wise man once told me, you will never go wrong, doing right.
Onward and with HOPE
John Hope Bryant