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Reflections from the Korbel Dinner

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Given the politically divisive climate that encompassed my introduction to American politics over the last fifteen years, I am accustomed to judging the character of politicians by their policies and presentation on the news.  Last week, my opinions changed dramatically.

On Monday, September 9, 2013, I attended the 16th annual Korbel Dinner hosted by the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies.   President George W. Bush was awarded the Global Service Award and CEO of Arrow electronics, Michael J. Long, with the International Bridge Builders award.

Politics aside, Bush's keynote address at the dinner, two days before the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, was incredible.  His charisma was palpable from the distance of a football field; he spoke eloquently and empathetically.  His manner was relaxed, relatable, and sincere.  Most surprisingly, he projected a born storyteller's demeanor with humor, humility, and excellent timing.

President Bush did not need to address 9/11.  As the recipient of an award for his humanitarian work with AIDS and cervical cancer in Africa, he might have avoided the subject entirely.  He could have skirted controversy and shied away from the risk of provoking dissent.  He did not.

Twelve years later, it is remarkable how poignant my memories of 9/11 remain.  As Bush spoke, the room watched with rapt attention, each entwined in his or her own experience of that frozen moment; the confusion of the first plane and the dawning realization of the second, the fear and uncertainty paired with sorrow and budding rage.

As an unexpected wartime president, Bush looked down the parallel paths of vengeance and justice with the sole power to appease our bleeding nation.  From the rubble, he projected strength and confidence as he decisively chose our route.  For a moment, the United States was as united as it has been in a century.

Bush had no less option to talk about 9/11 from the stage at the Korbel Dinner than he did from the ruins of the World Trade Center.  More than anything, George W. Bush speaks from his heart and says exactly what he believes.  As far as provoking dissent goes, he believes that any leader must accept and welcome the flak that accompanies the pursuit of good conscience.  He was, after all, elected to make challenging decisions.

The presentation was not solemn, however; Bush switched fluidly between his experience of 9/11 and anecdotes about pitching at a Yankees game and the insecurity of Vladimir Putin’s dog.  In the midst of this conversation, alternately light and serious, two things stand out above all:  George W. Bush is true to his beliefs to a fault, and he likes and believes in people.  In consequence, sitting fifty yards away as he spoke, I felt that he was speaking directly to me.  Although the news presented him as hero and villain, savior and fool, in person he is human.  As a human, I can’t imagine anyone disliking him.

The Korbel dinner reminded me that for all of the divisiveness and bickering of modern politics, our leaders are humans, and by and large good people.  As a country, especially in the struggle against horror and violence, we rely on good people.  I will not again equate political policies with the people who bear them, because despite our disagreements, we all believe in this democracy, and we all believe in improving it.  Dissent is a critical part of that, and should encourage us to participate rather than driving us away.

In the pursuit of positive impact in Colorado, El Pomar Foundation comes into contact with a huge variety of people and opinions – from small nonprofit leaders to the President of the United States.  Each new day brings me into contact with another perspective not so very far from my own, and each passing day cements my belief that most people act with positive intent, and that eventually this mad mess of a democracy will always grow better.  If anything, listening to George W. Bush speak not only reinforced my faith in people, but also my determination to serve the people around me – and the wonderfully complex nation that they compose.