Honoring Thousands of Points of Light, and the Point of Light Who Made It Possible
It is a once-a-decade kind of gathering – four living ex-Presidents in one room to celebrate one of their own. Monday night, HealthCentral had an opportunity to help underwrite one of these rare moments, supporting an epic fundraiser and tribute by the Points of Life Institute to President George H.W. Bush. The event featured Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Bush ’43, along with a bevy of top-flight entertainers and musicians. Characteristic of Bush ‘41’s personal modesty, the Kennedy Center event was less about his personal legacy than a celebration of great volunteers and volunteering.
President Clinton delivered the evening’s valedictory, connecting the dots among the ex-Presidents’ post-White House efforts to give back and help fix a broken world. But Clinton also spoke about the importance of volunteerism to himself and both Bushes while in office. Clinton recounted his Inauguration Day meeting with President Bush ’41, just after the hard-fought 1992 campaign. It has become something of a modern tradition, Clinton said, for outgoing presidents on Inauguration Day to suggest to the incoming president something they would like preserved. President Bush ’41, Clinton said, asked only one thing, that Clinton keep the White House Points Of Life office to promote volunteerism that Bush created in 1989. Clinton honored that request, and made a similar one of President-elect George W. Bush, asking him in January 2001 to preserve the revitalized AmeriCorps/Vista national service program Clinton created. George W. Bush, in turn, enlisted his father and Clinton to lead fundraising after the 2004 South Asian tsunami, in what became of one of the most unlikeliest Odd Couple political friendships. Clinton, a happy warrior in politics, counseled that partisan politics has its place, but after leaving “the arena,” the opportunity to serve, and the rewards and joys that result, are timeless.
President Carter, for his part, offered a more tongue-in-cheek take on volunteerism, observing drily, “I’ve been volunteering since I was a child, and if you think I had any choice about becoming a volunteer, you must not have met my mother, Miss Lillian!” And after his presidency, Carter and his wife Rosalynn, took Miss Lillian’s command to heart, immersing themselves in Habitats for Humanity and efforts to improve housing and living conditions around the world. President Bush ’41 spoke, too, in person and in a video montage about the importance of service in his life before and after politics, and the role of his parents, Senator Prescott Bush and Dorothy Bush, in shaping his appreciation of service.
Six volunteers were spotlighted for their pioneering efforts. One, Chad Pregracke, had the most unscripted, and funny, moment of the night. Pregracke grew up along the Mississippi’s banks and as a young man, disgusted by the trash floating by, started weekend river clean-ups, eventually founding Living Lands and Waters to remove trash from all of America’s major rivers. Introduced by Carter, Pregracke came on stage excited but visibly nervous. He launched into a flurry of thoughts, then lost his way, paused, and blurted out: “No teleprompter here, as y’all can see.” Roaring laughter erupted – cynical Washingtonians enjoying the political subtext, everyone else sharing the delight of a good person amidst a special and bewildering moment.
Chip Chappelle, a UPS logistics chief was honored for his around-the-clock mobilization of UPS personnel to package and ship donated supplies to Haitians affected by the 2010 earthquake there. Gary Maxworthy, a retired supermarket chain executive, was acknowledged for co-creating Farm to Family, a program to deliver donated fresh food to food banks in California. An NYU student was recognized for her work mentoring children in New York City, inspired she said by her own experience, when she was exposed to a world of books and ideas transcending her dismal and discouraging surroundings in a hard-pressed section of the South Bronx.
From my vantage, a few rows behind the Presidents, both Mrs. Bush’s, and Mrs. Carter, the event underscored the decade-long shift through the 1990’s from The Greatest Generation to the Baby Boomers. In manner and meaning Presidents Bush ’41 and Carter exemplified an earlier time where parents instilled a sense of self-effacement and obligation, regardless of material circumstance. And yet, Bush ’41 – the father of five children who came of age during Flower Power – understood that a sermonesque call to do good in 1989 would fall flat. The zeitgeist of the Baby Boomers, his kids, he knew, was self-awareness. And so, he channeled the spirit of self to rebrand volunteerism as a pathway to self-esteem. From the first days of the White House office overseeing the Points of Light Initiative, it became clear that it was as important to promote the “Lights”, the people volunteering, as much as the volunteer work they did. (Full disclosure: I was a political appointee in the Bush ’41 Administration). Bush’s Points of Light initiative shone the White House spotlight on some wonderful people and organizations. But it also presaged the rise of megachurches, with their positivist messages fusing affirmation and self-actualization. The lasting beauty of Bush ‘41’s signature domestic effort was to marry a Greatest Generation sense of commitment to sixties-era “me-ism”: volunteerism was good for the self, even as it was better for people in need. And, as Clinton admitted, he and his fellow Baby Boom successors ate it up.
You could see it, too, there in the Kennedy Center Opera House, as Sam Moore and Cee Lo Green, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, and Reba McEntire belted out signature country and blues tunes. The presidential parents sat immovably, taking it in, quietly proud. Flanking them, the unruly Baby Boomers bopped their heads, tapped their feet, and sang along. Sure, the elder generation seemed to be thinking, the passage of time meant we had to hand over power to the kids who’d acted up and acted out. They’d had the run of the house, and eventually they had run of the White House. But, we fooled ‘em. They thought this volunteerism stuff was about what great people they could become; when all that mattered is that they helped people in need. Who cares why they did it? They did it, along with millions of other Americans. And isn’t that, after all, what Dorothy Walker Bush and Miss Lillian Carter wanted for their little boys too?