Clements Center Rings in Five Years with Former President George W. Bush

“Leaders need principles, vision, and implementation—and history gives perspective and usable lessons on leadership,” former U.S. President George W. Bush said on Feb. 23, 2018. A crowd of 350 had gathered for dinner in Dallas, where Bush now lives, to celebrate the five-year anniversary of the Clements Center for National Security.

Housed in the Flawn Academic Center, the Clements Center opened its doors in 2013. The first of its kind, the research center has a mission to bridge the gap between history, diplomacy, and national security policy. “Policymakers are hungry to learn the lessons and insights of history, yet a lot of university history departments were not speaking to policymakers,” said the center’s executive director and LBJ School professor Will Inboden. “We’re trying to sit at that critical intersection.”

At the Belo Mansion in downtown Dallas, the venue for the night, members of the center’s extended family hobnobbed over hors d’oeuvres before taking their seats for the main event. Secret Service buzzed about. UT regents, administrators, professors, service members, and donors were in attendance, along with a couple dozen students, ranging from twenty-something undergraduates to PhD candidates.

“Only by understanding where we have been, can we make informed decisions about the future,” said UT president Greg Fenves, who delivered the opening remarks. “The Clements Center at The University of Texas prepares its students to do just that. As you look at universities across the country, you won’t find another Clements Center.”

In his speech, former President George W. Bush spoke about the role history played in his presidency. Famously a voracious consumer of presidential histories and biographies, Bush said that he found solace in reading about his predecessors’ struggles and successes.

“History also gives long-term perspective,” Bush said. “The job of a president is to look over the horizon to how things might be, not just how they are at that moment. History teaches that protectionist policies lead to economic deprivation… [and] that cycles of isolationism, nativism, and protectionism emerge periodically in American history. History teaches that ideological struggles take time [and] are long-term conflicts.”

Before Bush spoke, a video played that paid homage to former Texas Gov. William P. Clements, the center’s namesake. Clements started out roughnecking during the Great Depression, living paycheck-to-paycheck but still scraping up enough to buy as many history books as possible. He would go on to have a lucrative career in the offshore drilling business and pivot into public service, serving as deputy secretary of defense, briefly heading the Pentagon, and finally returning home. Back in Texas, Clements won the Texas governorship, the first Republican to do so since Reconstruction.

The Clements Center is not housed in any college or department, but instead reports directly to the UT president. “We had very ambitious expectations when the center began five years ago,” said former UT president Bill Powers, who held office at the time the center was founded. “I’d say it has surpassed [them]. Everyone is just delighted with the success and impact that the center has had.”

Inboden said Texas was just the right place for his bespoke policy and research center. “It’s a wonderful environment for creative thinking, challenging wisdom, and being entrepreneurial,” he said. Texas has a tradition of producing secretaries of state and defense, admirals, and preeminent policymakers; three out of the last 10 presidents were Texan. Plus, the state has a good donor community and a constituency receptive to the center’s mission, Inboden said. Though the center is avowedly nonpartisan, “we’re not agnostic when it comes to value. We stand with patriotism, we stand for strong American national security … [and] for national service.”

“History, Strategy, and Statecraft” is the center’s tagline, which highlights its conceptual range. In keeping with its mission of applying the insights of history and training the next generation of national security leaders, the center regularly convenes students, scholars, and policymakers.

For students, the center offers an undergraduate certificate in security studies, a study abroad option in London, research support, and a fellows program. The center supports Master’s and PhD students with funding, offers an annual competitively selected summer seminar in Beaver Creek, and provides scholarship opportunities.

It’s nice to get out of the D.C. beltway and come to the open skies, live music, and taco trucks of Austin, Inboden added. The center has helped bring plenty of impressive national security and foreign policy names to the Forty Acres: Robert Gates, James Comey, and Marco Rubio, among others. It counts multiple sitting senators on its statecraft board of reference. This academic year, in conjunction with others, the Clements Center has hosted CIA Director Mike Pompeo, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and more.

Five years in, the Clements Center is a well-heeled organization with a far-reaching network. As for what’s in store, Inboden said, “We’ve transitioned from startup phase to growth phase. There’s certainly demand for our mission on the part of students, which is gratifying.” He hopes that the center can build out its alumni network, expand programming, hire new faculty, and scale its offerings to students of all stripes.

And he wants more Clements centers. “A big-picture goal I have is to create competitors. Right now, there are very few universities that have anything like the Clements Center,” Inboden said. “It’s not good for the country if we’re the only ones doing it.”

Clements Center event with President George W. Bush. Photo by Grant Miller

 
 
 

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