Bush on public service: ‘Don’t be cynical about it’

During a conversation with Presidential Professor of Practice and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, hosted by the Fels Institute of Government, Bush remarked on politics, public service, and policy.

Two people seated on stage
Former Florida Governor and Presidential Professor of Practice Jeb Bush with Fels Institute Director Matthew Levendusky on April 25.

To a crowd of students on April 25, former Governor of Florida and Presidential Professor of Practice Jeb Bush engaged with Fels Institute of Government Director Matt Levendusky for a conversation about why he’s convinced a culture change could also change politics, hot topics of public policy, and the value of public service—especially outside of Washington, D.C.

Bush, asked about the inspiration for his public service, opened by recalling the family culture that shaped that outlook.

“Serving was something we were taught and it was inculcated in us, for sure,” Bush said of his upbringing. “Not just in politics of government, but serving others was a kind of value that was really important. Shared by my grandparents, and certainly my mom and dad.”

His political career began while volunteering for his father’s 1979 presidential campaign, he says, which was an experience that tested him for life in politics. 

“I went to 45 states, I campaigned for a year and a half, I did all sorts of crazy stuff, overcame all my inhibitions—politics is fun, but it’s wacky beyond belief,” he explained. “And you have to overcome some fears and trepidation; I’m introverted. So, I had some experiences that kind of empowered me to think more about service.”

After becoming secretary of commerce in Florida, he said, he quickly realized he cared most about taking on an executive job. His eyes were set on the Florida governorship.

“I think I’d be horrible in a collective process where you can hide behind the collective skirt, if you will,” he said. “I really wanted to be governor. And I got to do it, and it was a blast.”

Closeup of one of two people seated on stage
During a Q&A at Houston Hall, Bush took questions from Levendusky and, after, a series of questions from the audience.

Bush also spoke to students about the state of American politics today, describing a culture that now perceives politics as “an extraneous ecosystem that isn’t us.” That is, a structure that people can comment on rather than engage with. 

“There should be a higher recognition that we all have a role to play, I think, irrespective of our ideology, to be more engaged and recognize that we have a duty to change our culture,” he said. “And our culture change will, by definition, change our politics. I’m absolutely convinced of that.”

Bush touched on a variety of policy subjects during the conversation. He discussed the need for Democrats and Republicans to work on policy issues that both political parties can reasonably build consensus around—like, he said, creating a path to citizenship for dreamers who live in the country illegally, or securing the borders. He also discussed “reinvigorating our infrastructure as it relates to water” in Florida, in anticipation of stronger storms related to climate change, emphasizing the need to adapt to the climate challenges ahead. States, he said, will lead the way in addressing climate change, as each will be affected differently.

Bush also spoke at length about education, remarking on the poor implementation—particularly because of the perception of the takeover of  the federal level—of Common Core standards, while spotlighting the good intentions of the policy and the need for higher standards to ensure high school graduates are earning diplomas with adequate skills. He lamented the tendency for many students to graduate high school only to need remedial courses once they enter community colleges. He also advocated early childhood literacy and praised Florida’s school grading system.

More than anything, though, Bush drove home the point that not all change happens in Washington, D.C., and encouraged students to consider public policy work at local and state levels. He contrasted the active change-making of state and local governments and community organizations with Washington, D.C., where, he said, “it’s all a massive piece of gridlock.”

Jeb Bush seated on stage view from audience
Bush speaks to an audience of students and other members of the Penn community in the Hall of Flags.

Joe Buckshon, a first-year student in Fels’ executive MPA program, from Jessup, Pennsylvania, says he came to the event to hear from Bush and his mixed perspective, coming from backgrounds of policy, politics, and the private sector. He was struck by Bush’s “ability to get pretty specific on policy,” and also appreciated hearing him speak about state and local work. 

“That’s something I’m experiencing a little bit; I have a fellowship in the Commerce Department in the City of Philadelphia, and it’s pretty amazing the amount of work that is done at that level, and I have a whole new appreciation for folks serving in those roles,” he says. “I thought it was great, a really good point, but also something I’m seeing a little bit firsthand, too.”

Bush ended the dialogue by reminding students of the breadth and depth of work done at these levels, and also to be optimistic. 

“Don’t default to D.C., where it’s just all cruddy,” Bush said. “Bureaucracies in D.C., the swamp hasn’t been drained. Go to a place where you can make a huge difference and have that learning experience that can allow you to do all sorts of things you can’t even envision now, and do it with joy in your heart and with a servant’s heart. And don’t be cynical about it. 

And, he added, teasing: “You’ll probably find your spouse.”