Hughes spoke at Iowa State University as the Fall 2013 Mary Louise Smith Chair in Women and Politics.
Thank you very much. Thank you, Kristine—what a lovely introduction. President and Janet Leath, Dianne, Kristine. Thanks again, that was really, really a lovely introduction.
I have to say it’s great to be back in Iowa. I was thinking on the drive here this morning that it really all started here. I have vivid memories of that Straw Poll, that August morning in Ames in 1999. My boss, then-Gov. Bush went on to win the Iowa caucuses and that really put us on the path to the White House. So thank you, Iowa, for the wonderful privilege that I had to serve our country.
It’s also great to be here at Iowa State University, this beautiful and very vibrant campus. I love driving across and seeing all the tailgaters set up for tonight’s game. I get to go, which will be a lot of fun. I think I’m rooting for the wrong side, from your perspective. But my son and my money currently are at the University of Texas, so you’ll have to forgive me.
I’m well aware that I am standing here in the footsteps of some amazing women. The namesake of the center, Carrie Chapman Catt—what an inspiration. A leader of the women’s suffrage movement here in the United States, crusader for international peace and a tireless advocate for women’s rights around the world. It doesn’t get any better than that, and she’s a great role model for all of us.
And I’m so honored to be the Mary Louise Smith Chair. She was such a beloved civic and political leader. The first and only woman to ever chair the Republican National Committee, and I think we need to do something about that, don’t we? We could use her in D.C. right now, it occurred to me this morning. I was looking back. When she stepped down as chair of the Republican National Committee, she urged Republicans to avoid “destructive division” and warned about a “fatal lurch to either extreme of the political spectrum.” I wish some of our colleagues in Washington would heed the wise words of Mary Louise Smith as they try to bring a resolution to this government shut-down.
Your mission here, to interest and educate and engage young people, and especially women in the political process is really near and dear to my heart. I’ve spent a lot of my time since leaving public service encouraging others to get involved.
Though I have to admit, after my last three years of public service at the State Department, representing our country around the world during a very difficult and contentious time at the height of the world’s angst and concern about the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, I really enjoyed being home in Austin, Texas. I have a little quieter life. Most of all, I’ve enjoyed NOT being mentioned in the headlines of those nasty blogs or gossip columns. Although because I’ve been on television so much over the last decade or so, we still have quite a bit of what my family now fondly refers to as “Karen sightings,” where people will point or stare or ask for a picture.
It happened to me as I was getting on the airplane in D.C. yesterday, and it reminded me of one of my favorite memories. I was getting on a plane in California, and it was one of those really, really small commuter planes. In fact, it was one of those that was so small, that had you seen the plane before you made the reservation, you might not have made the reservation. I noticed as I got on this very small plane that the pilot looked way too young to have a license to even fly this very small airplane. When he saw me, he stood up and he followed me back to my seat and he said, “I have to meet you. I never thought I’d have Madeleine Albright on my airplane.”
But my all-time favorite recognition story took place on a cruise ship. My family and I went to dinner. You get on the elevators and you go up several levels and the doors kept opening and more people crowded on. At the very last stop, the door opened and two elderly women got on. One of the looked at me and stared, and she looked away, and she looked again, and she elbowed her friend and in a very loud stage whisper, she said, “Condi Rice is on this elevator!” You might imagine, Condi and I have had quite a few laughs about that.
People frequently ask me what it was like to be a women working at the highest levels of our government. Condi and I actually have a favorite story about that. We were going to a big international dinner in Mexico City one night, and as Condi got on the elevator with President Bush and then-Secretary of State Collin Powell, Colin looked down and said, “Condi, you have a huge run in your hose!”
Condi looked down and sure enough, it was all the way down the front of her leg, and she said, “I’m going to have to change them.”
President Bush, who was not known for his patience, folded his arms and said “How long will THAT take?” She promised two minutes, and every woman in the room can imagine the scene as she ran back to her hotel room, frantically digging through her suitcase, trying to change hose. The next day, we had a great time laughing all day long, sure that that was the first time in the history of our country that the president of the United States and the secretary of state waited while the national security advisor changed her hose.
Now, women made history in a lot more substantive ways, as well. I was always proud that eight of the 18 people at our most senior, early morning staff meetings at the White House were women. I think it’s important for women to be involved in the political process because women tend to bring a different, very valuable, and also very practical, perspective.
I vividly remember once that I was the only woman in a meeting, and we were sitting at this long conference table in the Roosevelt Room—we had a lot of our meetings at the White Hose—and we were discussing some proposed new energy regulations and how they would impact the operation of household appliances. This discussion got into the difference between front-loading and top-loading washing machines. I remember looking around the table at these assembled economists and scientists and Ph.D.s and energy experts, and thinking, you know I bet I’m the only person at this table who regularly USES a washing machine.
I have to tell you—I pinched myself almost every day going into the White House. You never get accustomed to it. It is such a privilege to drive into those gates and serve our country. Growing up, I never dreamed that I would one day end up at the White House.
My curiosity and love of reading lead me to English and journalism, as Kristine mentioned, in college. I started my career as a television reporter where I covered a little of everything from tornadoes to the Texas legislature. Back then it was a little hard to tell the difference between the two, sometimes—Texas politics was pretty wild. But I found myself gravitating toward the political stories, because I realized and witnessed the impact the decisions being made in the political process had on the lives, on everything from the taxes they paid to the curriculum their children were taught in school to the hours that the local park and swimming pool were open. So while some journalists I watched become cynical, I had the exact opposite experience. I found myself inspired by the decent people that I interviewed and covered from both political parties, who were willing to put their names on the line and endure the criticism that inevitably comes and the negative headlines and the attacks from opponents, and run for office out of what I thought seemed to be a genuine desire to make their communities a better place.
I decided I wanted to be a part of all of that, so 25 years ago I left journalism to join the Reagan-Bush campaign as the Texas press coordinator. I can assure you that was a pretty low-level position—I unfortunately never even had the privilege of meeting President Reagan. After that campaign, I went back to Dallas and did a series of local mayors races and county judge campaigns. I raised money for the zoo and the arboretum and restoring the old red courthouse, and I handed out leaflets at the park-and-ride when I was five months pregnant for a friend who was running for county judge. My husband calls those my “will consult for food” years. It was definitely not the fast-track to the White House, but eventually I became the executive director of the Republican Party of Texas, and then in 1994 I went to work for a guy named George. It seemed hard to believe that at that time, we did call him George, because he had not been elected to anything at that point. His mother said he couldn’t win. He talks about that time as being back when the motorcade was one car, and I remember that he was sometimes the one driving the car, which of course never happened years later.
I tell you all that about my career for a couple of reasons. You’ll notice I’ve moved around a lot. Some people might say I’ve had trouble holding a job. The way I like to put it is, until my most recent position at the public relations company I had never fully vested in a retirement plan at any place I had ever worked. Now, your financial advisor would not recommend that. But I wouldn’t trade it. It happened because I’ve always done what I was passionate about. So when young people like the students in this room ask me for advice, I say follow your passions, in keeping with your priorities. Do what you love. Do what you want to do at the time you want to do it. Engage yourself, and go all out for it.
I hope that my own career says that you can have a career and a family, and meet your responsibilities to both. I want young people to hear that message, as well. That doesn’t mean it’s easy—it’s frequently not—or that I’m especially good at it. I remember being at church one morning and I’d been gone most of the week on a business trip, and my granddaughter saw me and she tugged on my leg and she said, “KK! Where have you been?”
I said, “Lauren, I’ve been in California on a business trip.”
“Oh,” she said. “If you love your family, how come you leave us so much?”
We’ve all been there, right? If you love your family, why did you miss the dance recital, Mom, or the ballgame, Dad? Why did you work so late, or go out of town for that meeting? Those we love never think we are able to spend enough time with them.
I headlined a charity event in Austin and they send out an invitation, and they called it “An Evening with Karen Hughes.” My husband picked it up off the counter and looked at it and said, “I’d like an evening with Karen Hughes!”
We all face a tug-of-war to be faithful in our different roles, as spouses, as bosses, colleagues, parents, daughters, friends, sisters. Life is a series of conflicting demands, and we have to make choices. I think the biggest challenge is to make sure that those choices are based on our real priorities. We all have to decide what is true and lasting and most important to us, and use that to ground our decisions.
St. Augustine used a beautiful phrase: Ordo amoris. That’s Latin for “the order of the loves.” It strikes me that the most important thing we do in our life is choose our loves and then order them very, very carefully. That ability to step back from the fog of daily life, from the long to-do lists, from the things that keep us busy—rather than the things that we decide are most important—is a crucial leadership skill that I call clarity.
As you might imagine, I’ve been privileged to learn a lot about leadership from working at the highest levels of government. In fact, my friend and colleague, the former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, says that we are graduates of the George W. Bush School of Management. He was our nation’s first and only M.B.A. president. I realized in retrospect, looking back, how very much I learned from him over the years—about setting clears goals, about motivating and mobilizing people and then holding them accountable for achieving results.
I’m going to focus my talk today on three aspects that I call the CEO’s of leadership: clarity, example and optimism.
I’ll start with clarity. I was sitting on an airplane a few years ago, next to a man who was bubbling over with pride about the company he worked for. I’d never heard of it but apparently it was enormously successful. It made some sort of parts. I asked him, “What do you think was key to the success of the company?”
He said, “Our founder had great clarity. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, and importantly, what the company should NOT try to do. And then he made sure every one of our employees knew it, too.”
Clarity is absolutely key in my business of communication, in communicating goals and priorities. All of us have to communicate. We may not all have the powerful microphone of the Oval Office, but we all communicate—with our co-workers, with our fellow professors and students, with our colleagues. As I work as a communications advisor to businesses, one of the things I try to do for my clients is to get them to focus with great clarity on their goals—what exactly are they trying to achieve—and then make sure that everything they say and everything they do is aligned to support those.
I say that because public relations used to “what you say.” But the founder of my company says, no, no, you communicate with much more clarity by what you. Think about some examples we’ve seen in recent years. The airline executives who flew on private jets to Washington to ask for a taxpayer bailout. Business leaders who gave big bonuses while taking taxpayer’s money. They learned that what they do often communicated very powerfully and with much more clarity, than what they say.
I have found there is a tendency in the business world that’s not present in the political world. In the political world, you could never make a decision without your communications team in the room, thinking through the public relations aspect. But I’ve found in the business world that there’s a tendency to think that communication is something that happens down the hall. You make a decision and then you put out a press release, or you say it in an interview. Of course, that’s part of it, but I believe communication is really much bigger than that.
Communication is really strategic positioning. It’s the fundamental things that you want people to know—about a political candidate, about this great university, about a cause you support. Achieving that clarity of message is not always easy. Your message has to incorporate your core values, your philosophy. It has to ring true.
In the 2000 presidential race, we settled on the phrase “compassionate conservative” as the core of President Bush’s philosophy. Now that said a lot in two words. It told you that his basic philosophy was conservative, but it also said that he was a little different. Remember, his campaign was coming after the previous government shut-down in 1995, and so this said, this is not the Grinchy old, let’s abolish the department of education or shut down the government conservative of the past. This is someone who is different, who believes the conservative philosophy can be optimistic and hopeful.
We witnessed the same type of message clarity from a different party in the 2008 campaign. President Obama very clearly associated himself with powerful and positive words—just a couple of them—and you can all tell me what they were. Hope and change. And you remember that today, because of the clarity of that message.
Another key aspect of clarity is consistency. I think a tribute to its power is found in the old quote from Nazi propaganda that asks, what’s a lie told a thousand times? The Nazi propaganda claims that a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth. I don’t agree—it’s still a lie—but it’s a lot more convincing one. You may have to deal with a lot more people who believe it. The speaker’s mantra is tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you told them, because part of achieving clarity is the consistency of repetition.
Clarity of convictions is the aspect of clarity that does the most to help a leader empower his or her team, to help the people who work for you to be the most effective you can be. President Bush was a master at this. If people know your core values and convictions, it gives them a great deal of latitude and freedom in which to make decisions and operate on your behalf.
When I was the spokesman for Gov. Bush in the Texas governor’s office, my son was little at the time. He once asked me, “Mom, when those reporters ask you all those questions, how do you know what to say?” It’s a great question, but I knew what to say because I knew what my boss believed. He based decisions on four core convictions: limited government, local control, strong families and individual responsibility. So when I reporter called me and said, “The state Department of Education wants to mandate textbooks for local schools,” I knew that Gov. Bush would say, “Well, they’re welcome to recommend text books, but I believe in local control and so I believe local school boards should make that decision for local schools.” It was really amazing to me over all the years that I worked for him, how easily and readily I could predict and speak on his behalf because of the clarity he put into and the consistency with which he applied his convictions.
I’ll make a final point on clarity, and that is that a leader must be very clear in setting priorities and then view everything in that prism. Not just every news release or every statement, but every decision, every announcement, every event. You have to question—does fit and add value to my priorities? Am I focused on what matters most?
I have a favorite story from my time in the White House about setting clear priorities. It was the weekend after Sept. 11, which you can imagine was a very tense and trying time, we’d all been working almost around the clock. The president called me down to the Oval Office on Sunday afternoon after the Tuesday attacks, and we started talking about he felt like he needed to give a speech to the nation but he wasn’t willing to commit until he actually saw the speech because he know how important it would be. We started going over an outline—the questions that we knew Americans were asking—who is this Al-Qaeda, and why would they attack us, and what are we up against, and where did this come from? By the time we finished talking through all these questions it was early Sunday evening, and I made a big mistake. Sunday, I believe, is family time. Our chief speech writer had two young sons. I thought, well, I talk to him Monday morning. He’s not going to work on it tonight. I’ll wait till Monday morning and then we’ll get started. Monday morning at the White House, I saw the president before I saw the speech writer, and the president said, “How’s my speech coming?”
I said, “Mr. President, I’m going to get with my chief speech writer and we’ll get right to work on it.”
He said, “You better start soon, because I want to see a draft TONIGHT.”
I was aghast. Most big speeches we worked on for several weeks. I knew we didn’t have several weeks but I thought at least several days, and I said, “Mr. President, that’s impossible!”
And he smiled and said, “By seven.”
I frantically called Mike and said, “I really screwed up. I should have called you last night. Now the president wants a draft tonight.”
Mike said, “That’s impossible.”
I said, “I tried that, and he said ‘By seven.’”
And so we frantically divvied it up and got different speech writers working on all the different sections and we got him a draft—very rough, not by seven, maybe eight or so—and for the next two hours he proceeded to call me as he was reading it. “Page five—that doesn’t make any sense.” “Page seven—you’ve got to change that.” “Conclusion’s no good.” I was on the phone with him until I went to bed. The next morning, again very early at the White House, I walked out of the senior staff meeting and I ran into the president. He said, “How’s the speech coming?”
I said, “Mr. President! I haven’t—I was on the phone with you till I went to bed last night, and I’ve been at senior staff meeting.”
And he said, “You’ll be going to work on it now?”
I said, “Well, I’m on my way to message meeting.”
He got about this close to my face, with those blue eyes twinkling, and he said, “And you think a message meeting is more important than my speech to an historic joint session of Congress when our nation is at war?” Well, not any more I didn’t! The president had just clearly focused me on my priorities.
Great leaders have great clarity, and they share it with their teams.
The second element of what I’m calling the CEO’s of leadership is example. I have witnessed its enormous power in ways both large and small.
I’ll start with the small. President Bush is an absolute stickler for being on time. I learned early on working for him that if you were supposed to be somewhere at 9:00, you better be there at quarter till, or you might get left behind. He used to get to events so early that I would have to persuade him to wait to go in because the people weren’t there yet and the TV cameras weren’t set up. We used to joke that our first four-year term would be over in three years, six months because he was early to everything! I once asked him, “Mr. President, why are you so obsessed with being on time?”
He looked at me like I’d lost my mind and he said, “Late is rude.” I’ll tell you, when we got to the White House, he really believed that if people were going to come hear him, he owed them the courtesy of being on time. I can’t tell you how many people—probably 50 people, from the pilots on Air Force One, to the drivers of the motorcade, to the house staff, the cooks—told me how much they appreciate him being on time, because it showed his respect for their time. Plus it was an example that set a much larger standard—that he expected a disciplined environment where work would be done well in a professional and timely way. I cannot tell you how much that permeates to this day. In my company, we have people who worked in the Bush administration and the Clinton administration. If there’s a call at 2:00, the Bush people are on it at five till. The Clinton people show up at ten or fifteen after. That’s years after both administrations, so it’s an amazingly powerful example of how something little can really carry forward.
An example I tried to set in my role at the State Department was to demonstrate America’s respect for the art and culture and contributions of other countries. On my very first trip to Egypt, I bought a necklace that was designed by a well-known Arab artist named Azza Fahmi and it had an Arabic inscription on it, and I wore it everywhere I went in the Middle East. My husband accused me of buying jewelry all over the world, but I knew it was cultural outreach. The truth is, it was amazing how much it resonated. The foreign minister in Bahrain told me the day after I landed there, “You cannot imagine how much it means to have an American government official land in my country with Arabic on her necklace.”
I was at the White House, at a reception before the state of the union one night, and a young Iraqi soldier came across the room with his translator, and the translator said to me, “He never thought he would see Arabic in the White House. It made him feel so at home.” It was just a small example that set a tone of respect.
Another example that’s important for all leaders is humility. Humility allows you to reach out to those who may know you, to get the best advice from people who work for you. That’s really important for a leader, because obviously when you are president of the United States, you make decisions on all kinds of things that you cannot possibly be an expert on.
I remember sitting in a meeting on the science of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. I’m not an expert on that. You have to be able to reach out and seek input from those who are. That example of humility is sometimes difficult when you’re the boss. Places like the Oval Office or the boardroom can be intimidating, so it’s vital for a leader to set the example that he or she encourages honest opinion, welcomes disagreement and expects the truth.
I remember when my mom and dad visited me in the White House, and President Bush very nicely invited them in to the Oval Office. When you are there in that famous room, and you’ve seen it so many times on TV, and it’s a little intimidating. You look around and you realize that really is the president, that’s not some cardboard cutout—that really is the president of the United States! My mom, later that day, said, “Karen, don’t you get nervous when you have to walk in there and tell him something that he may not like to hear?” I was able to honestly answer no. The truth is it was not because of me. It came from years of working for him, watching his example, watching him reinforce what he values most from his staff—for us to give him the unvarnished truth.
I remember once he had invented one of his words. He’s quite creative that way—and yes, I know he can’t pronounce nuclear, believe me, I tried, all kinds of things, big L E—but this time the word was not “strategery” or “subliminimal.” This time is was “misunderestimate,” and the same morning he had called the terrorists “folks.” It fell to me to walk into the Oval Office early that morning and say, “Mr. President, I really don’t think you should be called the terrorists ‘folks’.”
“There are a lot of bad folks in the world, too.”
“But it sounds like the guys next door. These guys are trained killers—you can’t….”
“Anybody else not like anything I have to say today?” he grumbled.
Later that day, he came off the stage, and he’d given a speech—it was actually a great speech and he’d really put a lot of passion and his heart into it—and as he walked by me, he said, “Say anything wrong that time?” I kind of winced, because he had. One of my deals with him was to always tell him the truth, but it was such a great speech I didn’t want to say it so I finally said, “Well…”
He said, “What what what?”
I finally said, “Mr. President, you said ‘misunderestimate’.”
“I did not,” he said.
Our chief of staff was standing there and said helpfully, “Oh yes, Mr. President—three times.”
The president walks off grumbling to his aide, “Logan, I give a great speech, pour my heart out, and all they can talk about is three words, three lousy little words.”
Later that day, I was in the senior staff cabin on Air Force One, and I heard a rustle behind me and a pair of hands landed on my shoulders, and I looked up and it was the president, who announced, “I want you to misunderestimate folks!” Then he leaned down and he said, “I want you to always, always tell me when I screw up.” He realized he’d been grumbling and he knew he didn’t want me to hesitate next time. He actively set that example.
Another example that President Bush set ultimately empowered me to make the decision to leave the White House and move home to Texas for my son to finish high school. As you might imagine that was the hardest decision of my life and it took me about an agonizing month to make it. By night I’d think, I’m not even relevant in my family’s life, I’ve got to move home. By day I’d think, we’re dealing with such big problems around the world, how could I possibly leave? The president was my friend. I’d seen firsthand the difficulty of his job. I couldn’t imagine that I would do anything that would even make it one iota harder. On the other hand, I was finding that working at the White House was conflicting in very basic ways with my priorities of having time to be a good wife and mother, having my son grow up in the place where I thought he would best succeed and thrive. I ultimately concluded I could do a better job continuing to advise the president from afar in Texas than I could serving my family in Washington. I felt empowered to make that choice because I knew family was a priority for my boss as well. Ever since I had worked for him, he had said, “If you are a mom or dad, that’s your number one responsibility in life.” So that really freed me to make that decision.
Every speech I give, I always encourage any bosses in the room to create a family-friendly workplace. You may lose some hours when your employees go to their children’s school or sporting events, but you’ll gain it back ten-fold in loyalty and dedication and I’ll bet you get the hours made up many time over because your employees will be so grateful.
I want to encourage especially the young people here—choose your bosses very carefully. We tend to think of the company or the industry that we go to work for, but I have found it’s important to focus on the person that you will be working for. I say that not only because my boss went on to become the president, but also because I’ve found your boss’ priorities and their examples can either support or undermine your own. If you’re in a situation where they undermine your priorities, it’s not a pleasant situation.
I’ve been talking about positive examples, but of course the power of example works both ways. It can really undercut leadership, which we’ve seen a lot in the business world. Richard Grasso, a number of years ago, was forced to resign as the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. The furor was over his compensation package of $140 million dollars, but the underlying problem was really a bad example. I’m going to quote from the New York Times, which said, “In an era when suspicion of corporate executives was high, such pay seemed unseemly. It was part of Mr. Grasso’s job to preserve the exchange’s reputation.” He set a bad example and lost his job.
Contrast that with the example of Herb Kelleher, the executive chairman of Southwest Airlines. I saw an interview. He had just negotiated a contract with the pilots and he said, “We just negotiated a contract to which our pilots took a five-year pay freeze in return for stock options. It wasn’t part of the deal, but I immediately also took a five-year pay freeze—voluntarily—to honor what they had done.” Example is a powerful thing.
I was at a leadership conference a few years ago, and Jim Collins—who you may recognize as the author of the classic leadership book “Good to Great,” was one of the speakers. He’s done a lot of research into leadership, and he’s identified two of the critical elements of the highest level of leadership. First, a genuine personal humility—there’s that example again—and second, a terrifying will for the work. I love that idea—a terrifying will for the work. He defined that as doing something not for your own sake, but a huge determination for a larger cause. That’s optimism—seeing a more important, more urgent mission. It’s the kind of passion that attracts people to a candidate or a cause. It was the power, frankly, behind President Obama’s “Yes, we can”—enlisting people in a cause that they felt was greater than self. That’s a very powerful motivator.
President Bush likes to joke, there aren’t too many leaders who go around saying “Follow me—the world will be worse.” That’s true, but we all know it’s sometimes hard to set that tone of optimism in the White House, in the very scary days after 9/11, in the difficult economic times that have continued to face our country since the financial crisis of 2008, during this time of frustration and anger and polarization in our country when Washington and our federal government is shut down.
I have to say, I’m very distressed about the situation there, as I’m sure many of you are. It seems that we have a clash of the extremes. On one hand, it’s the extreme position that the president and the majority leader of the Senate won’t negotiate. On the other hand, I think it was an extreme position—Sen. Cruz probably had great intentions and I agree with those intentions, I think Obamacare is a bad law—but I also think he had a bad strategy because I think it was totally unrealistic that a president who had been re-elected twice would allow Congress to de-fund his signature domestic achievement.
We’re living in a very polarized time. I hope in the end, that the American people will show that they are sick of all of this and that this will result in greater activism rather than further cynicism. I’m encouraged by what I see in our young people. I spent the spring at Harvard, living on campus as a resident fellow at the Institute of Politics. Our young people really do have a passion to make a difference, and they want to make things better. Let’s all work to replace anger with action. I’m all for passion in our political debate. I feel strongly about my own principles and views, but I hope we can restore more civility to the dialogue, and not just complain and demonize our opponents but try to offer constructive ideas and constructive solutions. Run for office yourself. Do something that makes a difference in your community. Take time to count the many blessings that we enjoy in this great land, and share that gratitude with others. Because I think the best way to get beyond the anger in our political system is not to try to get even but to try to do something that’s right and good for someone else. I am optimistic despite the dysfunction in Washington, that somehow we will tackle our challenges and find once again our can-do American spirit. We’re a country far from perfect, yet we strive every day, I think, as the American people, to live up to our own grand ideals.
I have to tell you, that after all my years in the political process and in public service—that included many great days when I was just so privileged to serve my country, and also some where the headlines were so bad that I really didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning—I still fundamentally believed that public service is a noble endeavor and that most people who get involved in it do so because they genuinely want to make a difference for their communities and for our country. That’s why the Carrie Chapman Catt Center exists, and that’s why each of you are here. As our nation’s very first George W.—George Washington—said, “Every post is honorable in which a man…”—and I’ll add woman—“…can serve her country.”
I’m also optimistic because of what I’ve witnessed around the world during the three years that I was privileged to serve as under-secretary of state. Everywhere I went, everywhere in the world, I saw Americans—like those of you here, individuals, members of our religious congregations, NGO’s, government workers, our military personnel, workers for American companies—all giving generously of themselves to help expand opportunity for other people. We’re a generous nation, and that generosity and spirit of giving to others are based on our founding values. If you truly believe that our rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness are endowed by our creator, then those rights cannot be hoarded but must be shared. I was privileged to witness Americans sharing them through what I call the diplomacy of our deeds—the concrete things that our citizens do around the world to expand economic opportunity and improve health, improve education, and help people have better lives.
Finally, I have to say I’m optimistic because of what I saw women doing across the world. During my years at the State Department, I witness firsthand that increasingly, many women of the world are the agents of change, the arbiters of peace and reconciliation, advocates of education and health. There are U.N. and World Bank studies that prove when you educate and empower women in developing countries, you improve every single aspect of those countries. I think the reason is because women share. Teach a women about nutrition and she uses the knowledge to help her children and her husband be healthier. Give a woman a micro-loan, and she’ll start a business and hire her neighbors. I remember meeting a woman named Rola Dashti. She worked with young people on college campuses in Kuwait, and they helped her organize and fight. She won the right for women to vote and run for office in Kuwait. The first year that women ran, none of them won. But I’m proud to say that Rola Dashti is one of four women elected in 2009 to serve in Kuwait’s parliament.
We’re beginning to see great change across the world, often with women leading that change.
Several years ago Secretary Rice and I attended the inauguration of Michelle Bachelet as the president of Chile. She has a really fascinating life story. She is the daughter of a Chilean general who was imprisoned after a coup overthrew the government he was serving. He was tortured, and died in prison. Michelle and her mother were also imprisoned for a time, but listen to what she said about that horrific experience: “Violence entered my life, destroying what I loved. Because I was a victim of hate, I have dedicated my life to turning that hate into understanding, into tolerance—and why not say it—into love.” That example—one woman’s ability to try to overcome hate and violence with hope and love is exactly what our world needs more of right now.
Women—arbiters of peace and reconciliation. You can be one of them. You don’t have to born with any of the leadership qualities I’ve talked about today. You can develop clarity, you can harness the power of example and optimism, and I hope you will use them to make a difference in the lives of others.
I want to conclude with two stories that stand out to me from my travels around the world. The first was in Afghanistan. It was shortly after the fall of the Taliban government, which as you know, brutally restricted women. They did not allow girls to go to school, would not allow women to work outside their homes. I was part of a delegation of women who were the first women to go into Afghanistan after the Taliban fell. I’ve never been more proud of our government, because I visited a reading program where our government was helping educate young women who had never had that opportunity in their lives, and they were teaching little girls to read. I remember asking them through the translator what they hoped to do with their education, and most of them said the only thing they’d ever seen modeled was a teacher. But one little girl said that she wanted to write a book. I was actually in the midst of writing my book at the time, so I said back to her, “I would love to say something on your behalf in my book that I’m writing right now, until you can write yours.”
Her answer, through the translator, was immediate. She said, “Women should be free to go to school, to work and to choose their own husbands.” She was 13 and facing the very real prospect that within a year she would be sold in marriage, so that was top-most on her mind.
As I was leaving the room, the translator came after me and grabbed me by the arm and said, “The little girl wants to tell you something else. Please don’t forget them. Please help them live in freedom.” I have to tell you that the eyes of that little girl followed me home, and I still think about her.
Mrs. Bush and I were in New York last week with a group of women from the Bush administration. We’re very concerned about what will happen to the women of Afghanistan as our U.S. troops come home next year and we’re trying to make sure that world continues to watch and keep a spotlight, because there have been enormous gains made for women in the ten years that we’ve been there. I’ll just give you one statistic. When I first visited, the average lifespan for a women in Afghanistan was 44. It is now 60. We have made remarkable progress, that I hope the world will watch and maintain those gains.
Finally, I’ll close with the story of a young man I met in Turkey. One of the things our public diplomats try to do across the world is build a sense of volunteerism, of the idea of giving back and serving others in communities. That’s our tradition in America, but it is not the tradition in many other countries. I visited a housing project in Turkey where our embassy staff had helped parents organize an after-school program for children there. I met with the children and I met with the parents. They were so excited with the turn-around this had brought about in the neighborhood. In the very end, a young man who had not said a world the entire time raised his hand and asked a very haunting question. The translator said, “I’m not exactly sure how to interpret this, but he wants to know, does the Statue of Liberty still face out?” I think he meant, is the United States still that welcoming country, still that beacon of hope and opportunity that I’ve dreamed of it be. I told him, yes, the Statue of Liberty does face out, and I think it’s our challenge as Americans to make sure that our answer is always yes, that the United States of America remain a beacon of hope and opportunity for a world that is yearning for both.
I want to thank you. I want to thank you for encouraging people to get involved in public service and to give back to our great country. I look forward to your questions. Thank you very much.