WASHINGTON — President George H.W. Bush started the “Points of Light” program in 1989 to hail ordinary Americans doing good work. On Monday, it was Bush’s turn to be hailed.
President Barack Obama saluted the former president at the White House for sparking a surge in volunteerism. Together, the two presidents bestowed the 5,000th Point of Light to an Iowa couple who have served meals to hungry children. The couple was the latest in a once-small program that Bush started and Obama said “sparked a national movement.”
“Today we can say that our country is a better and a stronger force for good in the world because, more and more, we are a people that serve,” Obama said, noting that the number of Americans who volunteer has grown by more than 25 million since 1989.
Bush created the first White House office dedicated to promoting volunteerism, Obama said. He also championed the National and Community Service Act, which he signed with “little fanfare,” but which Obama said has provided millions with the opportunity to serve.
“I am one of millions of people who have been inspired by your passion and your commitment,” Obama told the former president, who shared a stage with him in the East Room at the White House.
Obama – who celebrated the 20th anniversary of Points of Light with Bush in 2009 at Bush’s presidential library in Texas – used the former president’s own words to laud him, referring to remarks Bush used when he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.
“I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the nation, doing good,” Bush said in that speech, in which he also summoned a “kinder and gentler” America.
“We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding,” Bush told the Republican convention. “We will work on this in the White House, in the Cabinet agencies. I will go to the people and the programs that are the brighter points of light, and I will ask every member of my government to become involved. The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.”
“On behalf of us all,” Obama said, “let me just say that we are surely a kinder and gentler nation because of you.”
Obama praised Bush for continuing to award Points of Light even after he left office – and marveled at Bush’s post-presidency life, which has included seven skydiving trips, including one on his 85th birthday.
“In between skydiving and other activities, he kept going,” Obama said, noting that “when you do a parachute jump at the age of 85 . . . this is somebody who’s not going to slow down anytime soon.”
They both beamed as they posed with Floyd Hammer and Kathy Hamilton, whose nonprofit, Outreach, has distributed more than 233 million meals to children in the United States and more than 15 countries.
The event was bittersweet: Bush, 89, frail and using a wheelchair, spoke just briefly, thanking the Obamas for their "wonderful hospitality," adding, “It’s like coming home for (former first lady) Barbara and me."
Barbara Bush sat in the front row of a room full of Bush-era alum and members of Congress. Former President George W. Bush was not there, but another son, Neil, who chairs Points of Light, joined Obama to hail his father, his voice breaking with emotion at times.
The younger Bush noted that his father – sporting a pair of bright red striped socks, “may not be parachuting anymore, but he’s trying to be a style setter. GQ man we’re calling him, instead of 41.”
The event was the latest Bush family appearance for Obama, who two weeks ago made a joint appearance with his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, to honor the victims of the 1998 embassy bombing in Tanzania.
The White House says Points of Light has a unique record of blurring partisan lines: weeks ago, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile introduced Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and danced with Republican strategist Karl Rove at the 2013 Points of Light Conference on Volunteering and Service.
Obama used the event to announce a new federal task force with representatives from Cabinet agencies and other departments to identify additional ways that the public and private sectors can partner together to support national service as a strategy for tackling national priorities, such as improving schools, recovering from disasters and mentoring children.
He said the task force would be led at the White House along with Wendy Spencer, the chief executive officer of the Corp. for National and Community Service. Spencer, Obama noted, previously led the volunteer commission in Florida for former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Said Obama, “We’ve got a whole family thing working.”