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The Bush Center's Forum On Leadership 'Focuses On Principles, Not Washington'

The George W. Bush Presidential Center
When the George W. Bush Presidential Center opened five years ago, the last five living presidents of the United States attended the dedication.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center is celebrating its fifth birthday with a star-studded leadership forum that ends Friday night with a keynote speech from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Bush Center president and CEO Ken Hersh says bringing Bezos to Dallas at a time when President Trump's been criticizing him on Twitter — and Dallas is on the shortlist for Amazon's second headquarters — was a coincidence.

"We invited him 10 months ago, way before the tweets," said Hersh.

He told KERA that Bezos and other high-profile guests were selected because of their leadership qualities.

Interview Highlights: Ken Hersh

On why the guest list doesn't include leaders from the far right:

The most important thing is that we talk about principles, we talk about major topics and we do it in a way that's not a lightning rod for the left or the right. The Bush Center is a nonpartisan institution and we try to make sure that both sides are represented.

We're not a 501c4 lobbying group. Our mission statement is simple. It is to engage the United States and the world by developing leaders, advancing policy,and taking action to address today’s most pressing challenges. It's not to change what's going on in Washington, whether the left or the right is in charge. [Former] President George W. Bush has already been president. What he understands and his mandate to us is that policies may change, but the principles do not, so just stick to the principles.

On why Jeff Bezos was selected as the forum's keynote:

Jeff Bezos is a visionary. Amazon is a miraculous company when you think about where they started, selling books in the '90s to where they are today. To bring a visionary like that to Dallas is really a great opportunity.

On the moment that cemented the value of the Bush Center

Dr. Oscar Biscet from Cuba stood up to the Castro regime. He was a trained doctor who got locked up because he expressed his opinion on the lack of expression inside Cuba.

Credit Grant Miller / George W. Bush Presidential Center
George W. Bush Presidential Center
President George W. Bush presented Dr. Oscar Biscet of Cuba with his Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. Dr. Biscet, who was jailed as a prisoner of conscience in Cuba from 2002 until 2011, and was awarded the medal in absentia in 2007.

President Bush in 2007 gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was unable to accept the award because he was in jail. After President Obama opened up relations with Cuba, Dr. Biscet was allowed to travel. He said "I want to travel to meet President Bush."

We had his medal from 2007 that he wasn't able to collect, so we hosted him in the summer in 2016.  President Bush asked him, "What kept you going?" Dr. Biscet said he had heard President Bush on the radio talk about human freedom. He said "I knew you were out there, and it gave me hope."

To hear a real-life example where words matter, made that kind of an impact and is now making an impact inside Cuba is really amazing. For me to witness that has really been special. 

Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.