Okay, I have to admit that I have never even once watched an episode of the “West Wing.” However, I guess I can say that I have lived through two episodes of the “West Wing.” With the following being an account of my visit there in February 2008. Here are my recollections:
Report of the meeting of the HELP Commission
And the President of the United States, George W. Bush
The White House
February 12, 2008
By Benjamin K. Homan Presidential Appointee,
HELP Commission / www.HELPCommission.gov
President, Food for the Hungry, Inc.
It was a privilege and honor for me to join with eight of my fellow Commissioners from the HELP Commission (also known by its more formal, legislative name, “the Commission for Helping to Enhance the Livelihoods of People Around the World”) in meeting last week with President George Bush and his National Security Advisor, Stephen Hadley. The President and Mr. Hadley also invited three additional staff members from their National Security and White House staff. The meeting lasted approximately 50 minutes, with President Bush attending for approximately 35 minutes. The Commissioners that attended were bi-partisan, representing both Republicans and Democrats.
We entered the section of the White House known as the West Wing through a portico guarded by a U.S. Marine guard. Inside, we assembled as a group in a reception area, surrounded by historic oil paintings, ornate frames, bookshelves with presidential papers from numerous administrations — and ringed with security personnel. The informal discussion amongst the Commissioners was about the “Potomac Primary” which was being held on that very rainy and cold day (The Democratic members were decidedly pro-Obama). After a few minutes, we were then shown into a short and wide hallway and an entrance to the Roosevelt Cabinet Room in the West Wing (the room has four entrances, one of which is immediately across the hall, just five steps or so, from the Oval Office). Inside the Roosevelt Room, on one wall was the Nobel Peace prize for Teddy Roosevelt, awarded to him for helping to negotiate the end of the Russo-Japanese war. On another wall was Roosevelt’s Medal of Honor for bravery in the Spanish American War. On another wall, hanging over a fireplace mantle, was an oil painting of Teddy Roosevelt on a horse charging the enemy with his famed ‘rough riders.’ Yet another wall contained two bronze and sculpted profiles of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Teddy Roosevelt. The room is filled with a large wood conference table and is surrounded by comfortable couches and chairs. The room was reportedly used as a playroom, about a hundred years ago, for Teddy Roosevelt’s children. Maybe the nomenclature of the room honors the Roosevelt children’s use of the room. That I am not sure about, but I can definitely say that the room has lost its “playroom ambiance,” exchanging it for refined, colonial elegance, crown molding and soft beige colors with touches of a Texas blue.
THE START OF THE MEETING:
Our meeting began informally when the National Security Advisor and two of his advisors sat down at the conference table, leaving the middle seat open (a seat that had at its table setting a brown wooden box the size of a 3 or 4 butter sticks and with a gold embossed presidential seal and a small, protruding red button). Soon after, President Bush entered the room. It so happened that the President came toward me first. He shook my hand, and I introduced myself. Then he rounded the table to greet each person. When he sat down, we commenced a discussion by the Commission’s chair, Mary Bush (the President, as he passed my chair, joked — somewhat under his breath — that he and Mary were cousins, which is obviously in jest since Mary is an African American).
THE DISCUSSION WITH THE PRESIDENT:
1.) The President stated at the outset his interest in foreign assistance reform; he thanked us for our work and said, “I came to this meeting because I want you to know how important this matter is to me and our country. I’m interested; I really am.” Throughout the meeting, the President showed his engagement with this topic, his familiarity with the complexity of the issues and his willingness to lead the country toward a deeper international commitment, commenting on his desire for increases to HIV/AIDS spending.
2.) The first question to the Commission was this: “What really surprised you about your findings?” Mary Bush, serving as our spokesperson replied, “Our unanimity.” Mary then pointed out that it was remarkable that 21 appointees from across the political spectrum, including former staff people to Bill Clinton and Jesse Helms, could agree on so much.”
3.) Using a one-page summary (attached in a .pdf format), we summarized the Commission’s findings, with significant discussion on other matters (keep reading):
4.) National Security. We asserted a strong linkage of foreign assistance to national security. Not only did we mention this in our briefing, we emphasized that, as a Commission, we felt that the President should present a budget to Congress each year by which an aggregated/fused “national security budget” compiles and joins three prongs: Defense, Homeland Security and Foreign Assistance. We noted that the President’s 2002 National Security Strategy document (a matter of public record) links these three together, but the budget presentation to Congress does not align in the same way. One of the fascinating parts of the meeting was to see that the national security staff initially thought that they were doing this, but we pointed out that, in fact, this method was not consistently applied. There was an ‘aha’ moment here. Our point in recommending this was to identify a strategy with which to garner greater support for foreign assistance in Congress. Typically, members of Congress are reluctant to vote for “foreign assistance” when it is a stand-alone budget line. However, with official linkage to the national security budget and defense, we believe that we have created a means to secure additional support.
5.) Private Sector. We discussed the African Growth and Opportunities Act, known as “AGOA” ( www.agoa.gov ). “A good piece of legislation,” the President said. “We need more things like this,” he added. We concurred, affirming the role of private enterprise to grow the number of self-sustaining jobs. Our recommendations, we noted, affirmed the need for growth in small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) to fill the economic gap between micro-enterprise efforts and larger businesses. We noted our desire to see pro-business initiatives like the “Global Development Alliance” (GDA) and the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to grow. Both initiatives promote free-enterprise.
6.) Trade Policy. We also discussed at length our desire to coordinate foreign assistance with trade policy. The President eagerly jumped into the discussion at this point. “I think everyone here knows that I am a strong ‘free-trader.’ But those votes are tough to come by in Congress.” The President also stated that “We need to make sure that these developing countries lower the trade barriers that they’ve made with each other; yes, with us too; but especially, they need free trade amongst themselves.”
7.) Structure. Our recommendations called for a restructuring and reformation of the State Department — a “next generation” State Department; we opted against a stand alone, new cabinet agency on foreign assistance (akin to the UK’s DFID (Department for International Development) model. We feared that a separate foreign assistance department would create a margainalization of foreign assistance, relegating it to a “minor cabinet department” status instead of a place at the table as part of one of the original cabinet departments, as in the State Department. At the same time, we argued that the currently configured State Department is hamstrung by an antiquated, non-operational structure that is under-staffed, under-trained and saddled by a foreign assistance act (circa 1961) that desperately needs to be re-written and shortened (from its current length of several hundred pages). The President engaged the discussion. My take-away was that our recommendations on reform of the State Department are viewed as credible and as a legitimate way to elevate foreign assistance. Off the record, a staff member called the recommended structure modifications “brilliant.” While much of Washington is riveted on a “new cabinet agency” as perhaps the only means of elevating foreign assistance, our recommended course of action is gaining some traction. It is less comprehendable in a sound-byte society, but it is affirming to see it being given a hearing.
8.) Key Accounts. We discussed with the President the need for two major accounts, each $500 million, one for disaster assistance and the other for dealing with weakened/fragile nations. “A good idea; worthy of consideration,” the President replied. The hoped-for result of the above accounts would be for some reduction of Congressional and Executive Branch Earmarks. “This is a 200 year old problem; I’m glad you finally solved it,” the President said to collective laughter. We all smiled. It will obviously be more difficult than that. The President was feisty on this topic. He was also especially energetic on food aid and the move towards increased local purchase of food. The President noted that there was a resounding silence on this from farm state members of Congress.
9.) Approvals/Coordination. We discussed ways to create a mechanism within the National Security Council itself to create greater alignment among the various cabinet agencies and Congressional initiatives that address and coordinate foreign assistance programs. There was high receptivity to this due to the fact that much of this exists informally and could be improved with a more formalized and documented process.
10.) Isolationism. We affirmed the President for doubling foreign assistance to Africa and marshalling support to fight Malaria and HIV/AIDS. He discussed briefly his upcoming trip. “You know, I leave for Africa on Friday.” Then he said, “There are elements within both political parties that would call us to withdraw and not engage with the world.” He emphasized how he thought those movements were dangerous streams of thought. One of my discussion points in the meeting was that within our recommendations, we recommended removing the legal barriers that exist for USAID and other government agencies to tout their programs and accomplishments to the American people. I also pointed out that one of the roles of faith-based organizations in the USA was to educate and mobilize the American people for deeper engagement and involvement in foreign assistance issues. I mentioned how faith-based organizations regularly introduce people, including investors, to field situations in Africa and other parts of the developing world, linking the “isolationism” discussion to the earlier discussion on free-enterprise and the private sector. The President again thanked the whole Commission for our engagement on foreign assistance issues and reminded us to be vigilant in this matter and not to take it for granted that this opinion will always prevail.
11.) History. C. Payne Lucas, one of the Democratric appointees to the Commission and founder of the NGO “Africare,” commented, “History will be kind to you, Mr. President.” “Thank you, C. Payne,” the President said with a chuckle, “But I think I’ll be dead by then.” THE
CONCLUSION OF THE MEETING
The President had said earlier in the meeting that he could only stay a few minutes because of an event for African History Month. “The [music group] Temptations are here to sing. Anyone want to come?” the President had asked. But, obviously that was only a playful offer. The President remained fully engaged in our foreign assistance discussion, asking pointedly, “What can we do in the next 11 months?” “How can we make some changes?” Very pragmatic and action-focused. Finally, though, as his aides took notes, the President had to be pulled away by 2 people. The first was a man that I initially thought was an assistant, but was actually his Chief of Staff. Nevertheless, his attempt to lead the President from the room did not succeed. But the second person to fetch him was Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. She came, dressed head to toe in red, bending down to hug the President and get him to leave (“c’mon!!”). We stood, and he followed Secretary Rice to the door near my side of the room. As he neared the door, I said, “God bless you.” The President stopped in his tracks, turned toward me, made eye contact and said, ‘”Thank you.” Actually, it was more of a folksy “Thank-ya.” It was a pointed and poignant reminder of divine dependence.
Time seemed to move so slowly while we were gathered, and I found myself praying for the President and for the burdens that he shoulders to feel lighter.
THE RED BUTTON
We continued our discussion for another ten minutes with the National Security Advisor and his staff and the President’s staff. Then, we stood up in adjournment, mingling and having informal discussion around the table. One of the staff members described the time as a “good meeting.” Later, I curiously asked, “.so what is the red button on that box in front of the President for?” Without missing a beat and with a straight face, the reply was: “It’s for decoration.”
END OF REPORT