[Podcast] Reputation Matters: Episode 4 | Holly KuzmichJanuary 17, 2024
Holly Kuzmich: Behind the Curtain with a “Kingmaker,” a Cabinet Secretary and a President
Hear what it’s like to work in the hallowed halls of the White House from former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, Holly Kuzmich. She shares unique insights on working closely for President George W. Bush during his Presidency and at the Bush Institute, revealing the contrast between public perceptions and internal realities. Learn about the nuances of bipartisan collaboration, leadership under pressure and the personal impact of high-stakes decision-making.
Holly serves as a Managing Director of the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, a global venture philanthropy firm supporting early-stage, high-impact social enterprises. She plays a lead role in sourcing new investments and working with the leadership of those organizations as an operating partner and board member as they grow to build capacity and achieve their maximum impact. As a member of the Foundation’s senior leadership team, based in Dallas, Texas, Holly plays a lead role in increasing the Foundation’s presence, portfolio investments and donor partnerships in Texas and the Southwest region. Holly currently serves on the board of DRK grantees Child Poverty Action Lab and Texas Water Trade. Holly has over 25 years of public policy and leadership experience, serving in senior positions in the government, non-profit, and private sectors. Prior to her current role, she was the Executive Director of the George W. Bush Institute, a solution-oriented nonpartisan policy organization focused on ensuring opportunity, strengthening democracy and advancing free societies. She is a veteran of the White House, U.S. Department of Education and Capitol Hill, where she developed her expertise in education policy.
Crayton: What would it be like to work for the President of the United States in the White House or for a US Cabinet secretary and then to work for both again after they left the administration? Today on Reputation Matters, our guest is Holly Kuzmich, who worked for President George W. Bush and also worked for US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Then went on to be the executive director of the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, Texas, and now you can find her as managing director for the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation. Holly Kuzmich, thank you so much for being here.
Holly: Of course. It’s great to see you, Crayton.
Crayton: Okay. So people of a certain age watched The West Wing or the old Michael Douglas movie, The American President. We all have these images of what it’s like to work in the White House. What was it like for you?
Holly: Not quite like The West Wing or The American President, although I did love both. From a practical perspective, the efficiency with which they get things done in the White House is handled in a hallway conversation. There’s a much more formal process to decision-making in the White House as I think we would all hope and expect than something like you see on a television show. But I think the thing I remember about it was every single day when you walked in those gates of the White House, you felt a sense of awe that you got to go to work there and that you had that job and because you did walk into the place, I think it hit you every day in a way that a lot of other jobs can’t give you that feeling and that sense of gratitude.
Crayton: How many years did you actually go into the White House?
Holly: Three and a half in the White House.
Crayton: Never got old or routine?
Holly: Never got old, never got old. And one of the fun things you get to do is there’s the normal White House tour where you get to go see the Blue Room and the Red Room and the state dining room and all of the normal places in the White House, but then if you work there, you get to give the West Wing tour in the evenings and on the weekends, and it’s reserved only for people who work there who then invite guests who can get a West Wing tour. And so to be able to give the West Wing tour is a pretty special experience and a lot of fun.
Crayton: I imagine. And we’re going to talk a little bit about that later. And before we get to working with President Bush in particular, I think a lot of people have this impression that especially as it relates to reputation, that politicians are only worried about getting reelected, that they’re just worried about how they come across, how they’re perceived, what the perception is, what the polls are. I mean, even in some of the movies exacerbate this, like what are the polling numbers? Where are we? Is that an oversimple or is that the reality of the situation?
Holly: Well, I can only speak to the person I worked for and say, number one, he knew his values and he’s always known his values, and that helped him come into the White House and say, “Here’s what I care about. Here’s what I’m going to focus on,” as he ran. Then when he was in the White House, he did not particularly pay attention to polls, nor did it drive how he decided what he wanted to do. He made that a specific point that Karl Rove, who is his political advisor in the White House, was not allowed particularly at National Security Council meetings because those were the big decisions about what we were doing on war and peace around the world, and he wanted no element of even having anyone at the table who had a political mindset because he wanted to have a very pure discussion about what should we do, what’s the right thing to do, and not even have that sort of color it even just by having somebody sitting there.
Crayton: In this day and age, I mean even 12 years ago, that seems a little counterintuitive. So everything is calculated. It has to be. I mean, you don’t win an election in the year 2000 or 2004 without thinking about these things.
Crayton: So he actually said that, “Karl, you’re not going to come-”
Holly: Correct. He said that. Now there’s also a difference between once a decision is made, how do you think about talking about it? If you’re going to roll out a new policy decision or you do bring the people in the room who are the communicators in the political minds to help you think about the crafting of that, but in terms of actually the information you need to make a decision, he himself was pretty clear, “I do not want the polls to be anywhere near how we think about the policy.”
Crayton: You said when he came into the White House, he had a clear sense of what he wanted. What did he say? How did that go? How did that come, “This is what I want to do, this is what I want to accomplish, this is what’s-”
Holly: Yeah. Well, he had a very strategic set of policy speeches he made in the year plus he was running. He had very specific policy proposals and white papers that got rolled out. I should have brought it with me. There was a book from 2000 that I still have, and I used it in all of my time at the Bush Institute, which outlined his priorities, his policies, and we actually had an office in the White House where they tracked every campaign proposal he made and how we were doing against it during our time in the White House. So they were very rigorous in saying, “Okay, if he said he was going to do this when he ran, we actually need to follow through and we’re going to measure it and look at it every six months and say, ‘Are we trying to do it? Did we accomplish it? Are we not even there?'” It wasn’t a fun process to have to go through all of that, but it certainly set a tone, “I said this and I intend on following up.”
Crayton: I was going to ask you just generally what it was like to work for George W. Bush, but you almost get the sense as a preface to that question that sometimes is it related to his reputation or public perception? He just didn’t care, but that may be untrue as well.
Holly: Yeah, I mean, I think to some extent he didn’t care, but every politician has to think to some degree about what their persona is publicly, but I mean, it’s been nice to be able to get to know him behind the scenes, and I think one of the things he always talks about was maybe some of the things he said in office that were a little bit off the cuff that he might’ve regretted or that his wife gave him a hard time about saying when he came home at night, but there is a lot of thought about how you put him out, where you put him out, what’s the environment. Is he giving a speech or is he talking to regular Americans? Is he going into the restaurant or is he going to a university and giving a speech like the backdrop in the setting for all of this as you know sends a message and sets a tone?
Crayton: I’d be interested if you could share a couple of examples of times where he was either personally admonished himself or Mrs. Bush admonished him for things that he set off the cuff. Two, just to set the stage, there’s two indelible impressions that I have of the administration where one is just a question mark, was that intended? The other was that didn’t go as intended or didn’t seem to. One is the victory pose on the aircraft carrier.
Holly: The mission accomplished.
Crayton: Mission accomplished and the flight suite. The other, of course, is when chief of Staff Andy Card came into the elementary schoolroom on September 11th, 2001, “Mr. President, we’re under attack.” The president stayed right where he was, stayed cool and calm and collected, but others of course said he should have gotten up and gotten out of the room. Are those on the list?
Holly: Yes. He has very much talked about 9/11 as a very spur of the moment decision he had to make about how do I react to this piece of information, and he always talked about the fact that he was sitting in front of, I think it was first-graders, I mean they were young kids, and that the cameras were lining the room and that he also knew that buying two minutes of time would give his team time to get a room set and be able to get the right people on the phone so that when he left, he could have a serious discussion. One of the other ones he talks about was when he made the quote about wanted dead or alive, he made an off the cuff quote, and Laura Bush really gave him a hard time about it because it sounded very kind of cowboy like Western of him, and she said, “You probably should have been a little bit more delicate about how you talk about something like that.” And of course, the mission accomplished is an example of that was a miss in terms of a communications message that was too early.
Crayton: How did he take that feedback?
Holly: Well, number one, he takes feedback, but he’s always a forward-looking person, so he doesn’t sit there and mull in a way of like, “Woe is me. Why did I do that?” He, of course, talks a lot too about the fact that he’s not always facile with the English language. He would make up words. He would say something inappropriate. He never said strategery. Do you know the story about this?
Holly: So strategery was a meeting in the White House. It was actually called strategery once a quarter, and it was a forward-looking long-term planning meeting, but the team, that’s what it was called, but it came from the fact that it was on Saturday Night Live and they made up the word. President Bush never knew he didn’t say it until Lorne Michaels came to the Bush Center about six years ago and did an event on humor in the White House and Lorne and President Bush met and President Bush said something about it. Lorne said, “Well, you didn’t say that, we created that.” And he said, “No, I said that word.” So he believed for 15 years that he had said strategery, when in fact it was Saturday Night Live, who took the fact that he was not always accurate in some of his use of the English language and came up with this word, but that wasn’t one of them. “Misunderestimate.”
Crayton: Can you think of a time where the president took your advice and another time where he didn’t?
Holly: I’m not going to necessarily say this one about my specific advice, but when I was at the Bush Center, one of the things he very much believes is that it’s not helpful for former presidents to be particularly involved in current political issues or giving the current president advice. Whether you strongly agree or strongly disagree, it’s just not helpful, and he’s been true to that in the 15 years now that he’s been out of office, but he does recognize he has a voice, and so there were times when the team surrounding him at the Bush Center would talk to him about when it’s important to make a statement. When George Floyd was murdered, there are questions like that of, “Do I say something? I’m now a former, what’s appropriate? What’s not?” And that was a case where he wondered, “Should I?” And he talked to a particular member of the team who I’m not going to name, who really said, “You need to, this is important.” And so thinking about when to use your voice afterwards was something where he would definitely take our advice on when to do that, but he would also weigh in at times when he would say, “No, not in that case.” I think that’s probably the starkest example of where he might or might not have said, “I am or I’m not going to weigh in,” on certain things.
Crayton: Now, there were times, and I don’t want to skip too far ahead, because there’s so much about the administration and your time in the White House that’s fascinating, and we will get to the Bush Institute in a minute, but in the meantime, just based on what you said, there were times it feels like during President Trump’s administration where he bumped up against that line of commenting or not commenting. How did you advise him on this is the time? Was it based on him and his values or what was going on in the particular situation?
Holly: Yeah, I mean, the time when he would weigh in were usually on things that once again, it was not going to be an individual political issue, and he’s talked about this a little bit. He did not agree with President Obama’s decision to pull troops from Iraq when he did that, and he did not necessarily agree with pulling troops from Afghanistan, and that was both a President Trump and a President Biden decision. He did not specifically speak on that then to comment, because his point was, “They’re making the decision, how is this going to help?” He has talked about it afterwards in the years after that, and so the purely current day political issues that sit either in Congress or the White House, he was pretty careful to stay out of. It was more the things that were about our nation’s overall institutions and things that transcend the American public where he felt like maybe he should weigh in at times. I mean, he’s always believed in the institution of the presidency, so he has been at every inauguration since he left office, and he will, I’m sure, continue to do that as long as he’s able to do it because no matter who’s being elected, whether he’s a fan of them or not, or whether he voted for them or not, he’s going to show up on that stage because he does understand the role of the former presidents in supporting the institution of the presidency and that a lot of other countries around the world do not see that peaceful transition of power that we have continued to maintain in this country.
Crayton: Not since John Quincy Adams have we seen a father-son presidency. As it relates to reputation, was President George W. Bush particularly sensitive about things that were either said or the way his father was perceived?
Holly: Well, number one, I think his father was pretty particularly in the past when President Bush, 43, got in office, the reputation of President George H.W. Bush was very good, and so it’s not like there were detractors that he had to be really defensive about his father, but he was of course really proud of his father and very close to his father. I never really saw him feel like he had to step out of the shadow in any way. Being in that office, you get such a big platform and a role that he didn’t really worry about any overstepping of any kind in any way or having to establish his own role. It just inevitably happens when you’re in that, and he’s not one, I mean, you’ve asked about this a couple times, he’s not one to sort of worry about what the chattering class says about him. That is one of the things I honestly respect about him and admire is that he’s pretty able to put a wall up, know what his own values are and what matters, and tune out all of the media and the commentary and the whoever’s making a statement.
Crayton: One of the things I talk about all the time is never believe your own press. If it’s bad, if you believe your own press, you’ll be huddled up in the corner, in the fetal position rocking back and forth and drive yourself crazy. If it’s good, your head will be too big.
Crayton: And so I think there’s some wisdom to, especially elected officials who at some point just know how to turn it off literally and figuratively, turn off the television, stop reading social media just for survival.
Holly: Well, and he had the benefit of not really having, I mean, there was the press, but he didn’t really have social media in the way that we do now. But yes, he generally tuned it out and he still does.
Crayton: It seems to me that the Bush family, the daughters and Mrs. Bush, that it’s the last time in recent history, because I don’t feel like the Obama family was the same way where the daughters were as out front, or this was America’s family. Again, Republican or Democrat, love them or hate them, the family seemed like they were out in front accessible, not too accessible. Was that by design?
Holly: Yeah. Well, I don’t know that the girls, Jenna and Barbara were probably, I mean, they were in college when he was in his first term, and he really wanted them to be able to still be college students and have as much of a private life as possible. And I think they generally did. They, I think-
Crayton: With Secret Service.
Holly: Yeah, with Secret Service. And sometimes they probably didn’t want Secret Service around. It was then in the second term, I mean, he’s talked about Jenna, who Jenna then decided she wanted to go campaign for her dad in 2004. And in 2000, it was like, “Geez, dad’s running for president?” It was a bad thing. And then she was in a different place in 2004 and really wanted to be more public about it. But of course, they all had the benefit of seeing her grandfather in office, so that was part of what that family benefited from. Laura Bush benefited from it in terms of thinking about her role as first lady and platform of issues that you go address, and she’d also been first lady as governor, so that helps. They just had a lot of exposure to what this role is in a way that so many other people don’t.
Crayton: And how if someone came from another planet and you had to describe what this role is like as you just said, how would you do it?
Holly: The role of first lady or just…
Crayton: The first family.
Holly: The first family. Well, this was always interesting too, and in the post presidency, we would get a lot of visitors at the Bush Center. Oftentimes foreign leaders, former prime ministers, the President Bush had served with, and they would come, number one, and they would just see a presidential center museum and library and Foundation, and they were in awe. “We don’t have anything like this in our country,” and they were all kind of jealous. We do treat the family as it’s not just the president who has a role. We treat it as the spouse or whoever has a role in this country that we do not in most other countries around the world. And we support it in that way too. I mean, the first lady has a team and a staff in the White House and is expected to have a platform, and we’re all a little bit disappointed if they don’t use it in fruitful ways.
Crayton: Yeah. When did you become assistant secretary of education?
Holly: The last year of the Bush administration.
Crayton: And you worked with Margaret Spellings.
Crayton: When in there did No Child Left Behind take place? Also, we saw some mass shootings on-
Holly: Virginia Tech.
Crayton: Virginia Tech in particular on your watch. Tell us about those experiences.
Holly: Yeah, well, No Child Left Behind came. I was working on Capitol Hill when No Child Left Behind passed, and I actually worked on it as legislation and it got… I mean, the reason President Bush was in Florida in a school on September 11th was because it had passed both the House and the Senate, and we were in the conference committee to work out a bill out of that, and we were stalled. Progress was slowing, we were hitting some road bumps, and so he was in a school and was doing a series of events to try and kickstart that. Then of course with September 11th, the entire focus turned to Homeland Security and National Security, which then delayed us even more. But then we really got back around to it. So it was signed into on January of ’02, so it was the first year of the Bush administration. I came in that summer and then worked on implementation for the six and a half years that I was in the Bush administration because it was just such a wide-ranging law with a long timeline of implementation and a lot in it. I spent a lot of my time, whether I was in the White House or in the Department of Education, working on that because it was just such a big, it affected 50 million school children across the country and every public school in our country and had requirements that didn’t kick in for three years. So there was a lot to it, but then I got to touch almost any other big education policy issue that we had, whether it was proactive issues, like how do we think about student aid or whether it was the reactive and how do you deal with a crisis, whether it was Hurricane Katrina and all the families who were leaving New Orleans and coming to Texas or anywhere else, and kids were showing up in the middle of the school year unexpectedly to mash some of the first big mass shootings that we saw, like Virginia Tech, where I did a lot of work with the Department of Justice. I’m in the Department of Health and Human Services on mental health supports we could provide and school safety assistance we could provide across the agencies of the administration or whether it was the financial crisis. And the reason that hit us at the Department of Ed is because all of the student loans in the country, the federal student loans in the country are backed by the Department of Education. And a lot of the private companies that provided the loans were invested in mortgage-backed securities, and they were coming to us saying, “I’m about to go belly up unless you help,” which meant millions of college students across the country were not going to have access to student loans to be able to go to college.
Crayton: Yeah. So you may not have necessarily been thinking about brand perception of the administration or even that of Secretary Spellings at the time, but certainly you had a philosophy or have a philosophy as it relates to communications and storytelling. What has been your true north as you’ve advised these others through all of the litany of experiences you just shared?
Holly: No Child Left Behind is probably the biggest example of where we really thought about that because I wasn’t part of the campaign piece of it where he was trying to get Congress to pass it. But I came in afterwards and I did events for six and a half years in the White House and in the administration to help tell the story of No Child Left Behind, because we also had resistance after it passed from a lot of people who did not like it and wanted it changed or overturned or sued the Department of Education about it. And our strategy was always go to the people most directly affected, go to schools, get into those schools, be with students, be with teachers, highlight the schools that are making progress and why, and use that to tell the story of why we do this work and the impact it was having not to do a lot of meetings with the state officials who were implementing it. We all looked like bureaucrats, like, “Get out, go in the field.” And every January 8th, that was when the law was signed. That wasn’t the only time, but we would always do a big event to celebrate and talk about the results of No Child Left Behind. And I always got to work on that. I would get to call schools and tell them, “The President of the United States is going to come visit you.” One time I had a principal say, “I don’t believe you.” And I said, “Well, here. Here’s the White House operator number. Call this, ask for me, and hopefully that will tell you I’m a real person and I’m not playing a prank on you.”
Crayton: It’s legit.
Holly: And so sure enough, that principal did that.
Crayton: You, as part of this, had to do a series of events where the president would show up and you made a decision that it wasn’t going to just be the normal dog and pony show. And it led to one example where Secretary Spellings looked at you from across the room, whether it was exasperated or frightened, what happened?
Holly: Yeah, so it was 2004 and I was in the White House, but of course it was an election year. So we did have to think about how do we put him out and what are the communications vehicles we use? And so one of the decisions that was made in the White House was that instead of having him do a lot of speeches, we wanted him interacting more in his events. And so they changed the format of a lot of his events that he did. And so the education event was the first one where they changed this format and they wanted him to go to a school and sort of almost lead, they called it a conversation, which was a handful of people sitting together on stage talking about this topic, a parent, a teacher, the school principal, whomever it may be. And Margaret turned to me, I was 26, and she said, “You’re up. You go to St. Louis, Missouri. We had picked the school, elementary” I still remember it. “And you got to go 24 hours ahead of time and prep all the people who are going to be on stage with him to make sure that they don’t feel nervous, that they know what the conversation’s going to be about.” So I would go practice with all of them and get them ready.
Crayton: Did you ever tell them, “Do not say this to the president or this is off limits?”
Holly: No, I don’t think we had anything that was off limits because part of it is you tee it up and you try to make it as natural as possible. You put them in the conversation because they have something to say that’s very grounded in their day-to-day life. My son, Ben, was behind in reading and today he’s flourishing because of XYZ. You want him telling that, not weighing in on education policy. So that’s the goal is you’ve got to figure out how to do all of this, and you had to essentially tee up the discussion for the president, “Here’s what we generally want you talking about. Get up there and go.” And you didn’t have much prep time with him. Any politician knows how to do this because they get a very quick briefing and then know how to go out there. And he was very good in these kinds of circumstances because he is a real regular guy, “Let’s converse.” And so they knew that that environment was going to be good for him. I do remember being in the school. This didn’t have to do with the conversation. As I said, I was in my mid-twenties and there was a kindergartener, and when the president shows up, snipers on the building show up, the Secret Service comes and has to put up metal detectors and there’s a lot of security around. I was walking around the school hours before and when a kindergartener saw me and I was wearing a suit, and he stopped me and said, “Are you Mrs. Bush?”
Holly: I clearly was disappointing him.
Crayton: One more question on No Child Left Behind, former Senator Ted Kennedy was a big proponent. In fact, there’s a letter, a handwritten letter, from Senator Kennedy in the Bush Library, thanking President Bush for pursuing a lot of people in this era of lack of bipartisanship. Did you work with Senator Ted Kennedy, and what was that like? What was it like?
Holly: I did. Number one, he was just a master legislator, but he was also fiery at the same time. I mean, that’s what I loved about him. I worked with him and his staff very closely on No Child Left Behind, and when I was confirmed in the Senate, it was when he was chair of the Education Committee and I knew his team. So they got me through unanimously in the Senate because he respected who I was and he respected President Bush. President Bush though worked really hard to build a close relationship with him. And that first week in the White House, he invited Ted Kennedy and his family over for movies in the White House Movie Theater, and they watched a movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis, which of course was his brother. So he knew if I’m going to try and get education legislation through the Senate, the number one person I need is Teds Kennedy. And so he worked on that relationship from day one, and it wasn’t an accident. But what I love about Ted Kennedy is he was a master legislator. He knew when to negotiate, but he’d also go out on the Senate floor and give the most fiery speech against what you’re trying to do. But then he’d walk off and he’d be willing to have a rational conversation, say, “Okay, let’s negotiate.”
Crayton: So this is for show, and then this is what’s really going on behind the scenes.
Holly: Yeah. But it wasn’t a secret. I mean, it’s not like he was…
Holly: No, but that was very much part of it. He went out there, you knew what he stood for, but then he also understood how to negotiate, which is a law start these days.
Crayton: It’s interesting because President Bush had a reputation when he was governor of Texas. At least I had understood of going to the offices of legislators, Republicans and Democrats in order to make his case. Is that true? And did you see that kind of outreach extend on Capitol Hill as well when he was in the White House?
Holly: Yeah, I mean, I’ve heard the same about, and obviously when he was governor, there was a Democratic lieutenant governor, which is a hugely powerful position in the State of Texas. So you have to be willing to work across the aisle when you’re in that situation. For the time at the end, I ran the Congressional Affairs shop. So it was my job to both proactively and reactively work with every member of Congress who had something to say about what we were doing at the Department of Education. And the tone we had was like, “You’re going to deal with everyone with respect. You’re going to return their phone calls, they’re going to be timely. You can’t always give them the answer they want, but half of the battle is just be responsive and don’t…” Too many people these days use as strategy is like, “I’m just not going to talk to them and they’re not going to like my answer, so I’m really not going to engage,” which to us was not the message that was sent and was the opposite. We used that to say, “We would always have a strategy if you’re going to roll out a new policy, when do you pre-brief the Republicans and the Democrats.” Being out of the loop is the worst thing you can do to a member of Congress is surprise them. Tell them ahead of time, but not too much ahead of time so that they’re not surprised, but they at least can’t say, “You didn’t even tell me.”
Crayton: One more person before we leave your time at the White House I have to ask you about, and that is Karl Rove. Known as a brilliant political strategist, love him or hate him. At one point, even in a book dubbed Bush’s Brain. Was he-
Holly: The architect.
Crayton: Yeah, the architect. As brilliant and as important in the Bush White House as it’s perceived?
Holly: Powerful is not necessarily the right word, had a big role and was very good at it, does his homework. I mean, as we’ve talked about, that man is a walking encyclopedia, and so he really did his work and he built a good team. And so in that sense, he was a very smart guy and he really did architect to 2004 winning election that he deserves a lot of credit for.
Crayton: Yeah, I’ve seen him speak and it’s thanks to you, I believe if memory serves, it’s almost like a cartoon where you see the drawer from the library index card pulling out of his brain and you can see him thumbing through it and he pulls the immediate card from 30 years ago.
Holly: Yes. Or an election from the 1800s. I mean, he just knows presidential history. He knows election history. So to the extent that he was giving advice based on history, he really understood when did things work and what worked about it and when did they not, he wasn’t just making all of this up. And what a lot of people don’t realize about Karl too is he’s really funny and has a great sense of humor. And there were a lot of people in the White House who had a great sense of humor including President Bush, and they cared a lot about making sure the workplace was just as fun as it was serious. And he contributed to that in significant ways.
Crayton: But it couldn’t have always been roses and fun.
Crayton: I’m sure the stress, any dark days in particular?
Holly: No. I mean those last couple months when the financial crisis was happening, I mean obviously there was September 11th and there was Hurricane Katrina, and then there was the financial crisis, and you could look, everybody knew what the approval numbers looked like. They were low in the twenties I think maybe by the end of the administration. People were tired, but we also had this huge sense of urgency on the financial crisis to make sure the economy was not going to go in the tank and we weren’t going to have a major depression. So that was a hard period in general because the President Bush is trying to sell the Hill and bailing out Wall Street, which is not something he ever wanted to do. He only did it for the good of the overall economy, but knowing that that policy decision was an unfortunate one, he had to be selling. So everything about it was not a very fun time, and we were trying to dutifully transition the government in a way that we had all been asked to, be good stewards, get transition memos together, meet with the incoming Obama administration all while this is happening, and all while people are like, “Aren’t you done yet?”
Crayton: So you mentioned the financial crisis. Next step for you was actually going into business as a consultant with former Secretary Spellings, and one of the things you all did was the 10,000 small businesses program with Goldman Sachs. The cynic would say that Goldman did it just for the reputational bounce. Having been one of the architects of it, how do you see it?
Holly: Timing was probably not coincidental in the sense that they realized we got to be smart about our next big philanthropic strategy out of our foundation. One of the things I very much respect about them is they decided as a firm, they created a program called 10,000 Women, which was the first one they had, and that was pre-financial crisis, teaching women about entrepreneurship around the world. And then 10,000 Small Businesses came in 2009, which was domestic here in the US supporting small business owners here. They decided instead of as a firm, instead of going out and finding organizations doing interesting work and funding them, we’re going to think about what assets we have and go build something in communities across this country. And that’s how they did it, and that’s what we got tasked with doing. But you’re right. Number one, in any time, the name Goldman Sachs is the white shoe banking firm in New York City that most common people in this country have no affiliation with and view as working with the elites. Then you pile on a financial crisis where Goldman Sachs and so many of the other big banks had to be part of the bailout. And people were not happy about that. But what they did was they had their own internal team and then they had to put together a whole group of people to help think about how do we go do this in local communities and convince people we’re not just going to do it for our name. We’re here to actually work with you and build something.
Crayton: Have impact.
Holly: And it took a team. I mean, we weren’t the only ones doing it. We worked with their internal team and they built an advisory committee that included the National Urban League and the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and a lot of organizations that otherwise probably wouldn’t have been working with Goldman Sachs, but mattered in terms of supporting small business owners in communities across this country. We would go work with the mayor in every case and have to go figure out what’s the landscape here? What college? We would always work with a community college. Who’s the right cast of characters to put together? And we had to spend a lot of time on the ground because that matters. You can’t just swoop in and say, “We’re here to help.” You had to build relationships at that local level, and that was a lot of fun to do. The good news was they were willing to put their capital behind it too. They spent $500 million on it in the first tranche of the program, and they’ve now hit, I don’t know how many, 13,000 probably at least businesses across the country.
Crayton: So you were shortly thereafter asked to be the executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, which is on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and also connected to the Bush Library. If memory serves, there was a little bit of controversy as it related to the Bush Institute and some questions from the university as well as others as to what would this thing be? How did you decide you were willing to take on this role, and what was the role?
Holly: Yeah. Well, a lot of that, the Bush Center got announced as coming to Dallas and SMU prior to the end of the Bush administration. I don’t remember what year it was. And so a lot of the controversy was at that time, and that was amongst the faculty at SMU who were very worried, I think this would’ve happened at any academic institution, it’s not specific to SMU, where they were very worried it was going to be a highly political operation, and they were not happy. They, broadly speaking, I am sure there were a wide variety of faculty who felt a variety of different things. But yes, there was a group of faculty and the team who preceded me had to work really hard with the leadership at SMU and the faculty to make their case that we’re going to be a nonpartisan institution, and they had to do a lot of person to person interaction and meetings on campus. They also had neighborhood. The neighborhood who was really worried about the physical facility and the campus and the traffic and all the things that come with a big new center in the middle of your neighborhood. So they had to deal with the very tactical day-to-day like, “You’re just coming to my neighborhood and I’m worried about all this traffic we’re going to have to deal with.”
Crayton: Working with President Bush, the president in the White House and President Bush, the former president, same? Different?
Holly: Well, I mean similar in some ways, right? The thing I feel very blessed about is that I worked for him in office, so I understood how does he think about the policy issues he cares about? What are the values? What drives his decision-making? How does he engage on education and economic growth and global health? I had a grounding in all of that work, so that was very helpful. What’s different is the platform is entirely different, and part of that is his decision, as I talked about earlier, where he did not want to be commenting and involved in current issues of the day per se, but he did also want the institute to be relevant. So thinking about how you make an institution relevant, the president’s still living. You want to leverage the fact that he’s still active and wants to be out there, but he wants you to build this to be long-standing, but also be relevant over time. That’s a challenge.
Crayton: How do you do it with him and without him, and despite him almost?
Holly: Yes, all of it. When I came, the building was six months old. So even though the institute had been operating for a couple years, the building itself was new. Number one, I didn’t do any of this by myself. We had a great team and we would all conspire on how to think about these things, but this is one of the things that was always, I mean, I got better at it the more I did it in my role at the Bush Institute, but upon my leaving, I didn’t feel like I had cracked the code on this. This is a constant every day sort of how do you think about the Bush Institute and its engagement as we weighed in on policy issues? What’s the line that goes too far into getting into really current? We chose not to lobby in any way. There’s an official line about how you think about that. But then at times, how do we use his voice and how do we build up and bring on our own team of experts so that we’ve got our own stable of people who are the ones really bringing relevance to the issues that we’re working on.
Crayton: Did he ever weigh in on that, give you any direction, say, “No, I’m not going to do that. Yes, I will”?
Crayton: And what did that look like?
Holly: Sure. We would meet with him regularly. And number one, he wanted to know everything we were doing, and he wanted to make sure it felt in the spirit of him and his values. Did he weigh in on the particular programs we would start? No, but he would give us guidance. And there’s a fine line there. He was not telling us what to do. We wanted him to react to things. It was more like we’d bring it to him and let him react.
Crayton: Would you do everything you asked him to?
Holly: No, of course not.
Crayton: What do you mean?
Holly: No, of course not. And I mean, he was pretty judicious about him personally. What is he going to show up at versus what he’s not? A lot of the role I had to play was helping the team think about, okay, we’re going to go do X, do we involve him or not? And we would have to have a lot of internal conversations about, “Well, what’s his role there? Is he just coming so that you get the cameras to show up? Or does he have a value add to the event and the conversation and the message we’re trying to send?” And there were a lot of times where people hadn’t thought that through, and we really had to push on that and say, “Okay, we’re going to do this event, but this is not right for him to show up at.” And as you might imagine, leading a team where we worked across issue areas, they all of course wanted him at every one of their events, and I had to be in a bit of a gate-
Crayton: He’s the draw.
Holly: I had to be the gatekeeper at times to say yes to this and no to this, and here’s the priority for the next six months. And that means you have to keep leading your work, but it’s not going to be because he’s showing up at your event.
Crayton: Yeah. One of the programs that you all were part of was the Presidential Leadership Scholars. And of course, namely in partnership with President Clinton. Of course just brief history lesson for our listeners and viewers, of course it was President Clinton that beat President George Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush in 1992. What was that like to have these two guys working together?
Holly: Well, it came about because his dad was a very gracious human being and did not let that defeat mean that he did not become friends with Bill Clinton. And that came about in a variety of ways. It really became true when they were put together to go work on disaster relief issues around the world, and they would literally spend time on the plane together, get to know each other, and they took on sort of a father-son relationship that Bill Clinton would talk about to this day. So that started, and then President Bush, 43, and President Clinton were often doing private speaking events together post presidency. So they started to get to know each other better. And despite being very different people, they get along and they had a good time. And so part of what Margaret Spellings whose idea this was, she saw that. She saw that Bill Clinton was close to his dad, that George W. and Bill Clinton were starting to become friends and built a relationship post presidency. And also the fact that when we included, there are three presidential centers and foundations in Texas, more than any other state in the country. Yeah.
Holly: And George W. And then Bill Clinton’s is close by in Arkansas. There’s two Republicans, two Democrats over the past 50 years. Those have been consequential times. So that was the theory of putting those four together. And when Margaret went to President Bush and talked to him about it, said, “What do you think?” He said, “Well, let me call President Clinton right now.” He was just like, “Okay, we’re on it. Let’s do this.” So the two of them talked and said, “We’ll do this.”
Crayton: How much does President Bush’s legacy play into the decisions as leader of the George W. Bush Institute? Is it all around his legacy?
Holly: No. No. And he would not want to hear that, nor it wasn’t, nor would he want that to be out in the ether. He wants it to be forward-looking and problem solving and not about being backwards looking. And so it’s all about building teams and issues that they’re working on that maybe today are things that he never addressed in office. I mean, we have issues at the Bush Center in the Bush Institute that he wasn’t necessarily knee-deep in tackling while he was president, which is the whole point of having an institute that’s more forward-looking and lives long beyond his time in office and his time even alive outside the presidency.
Crayton: So now you’ve gone to Draper Richards Kaplan. Managing director of Texas and beyond.
Crayton: What’s your role now? What are you doing?
Holly: So we find fund and support social entrepreneurs all over the world and help them grow and scale. And part of what led me to this was I worked in government for a very long time and saw the places where there is a particular role for government and the places where government is not so good at solving problems. And we all know that we need healthy, private and nonprofit institutions to really be driving change as well. I had done a lot of work on leadership issues and leadership programs and things like 10,000 Small Businesses where I got to work and sort of help people outside of government think about how we have a healthy private sector and nonprofit sector in this country. And at DRK, we find these early stage, high impact, highly scalable organizations that are solving social problems in outside of the government sector, but sometimes by partnering with government, and they wanted to do more in this state. And so I get to lead all of that for them and figure out who we’re going to go support and how we’re going to do that and give them money and serve on their board. And so it’s fun to think about I’ve gotten to dive into water issues, for example, which is a hugely important issue in the state. And think about how a nonprofit organization can help use water markets and water transactions to move water in ways that the public sector wants this to be happening, but it’s really complicated and somebody has to help figure it out. And so the organization I work with is doing that.
Crayton: So bring us full circle, Department of Education, White House, Bush Institute, consulting, Congress, Capitol Hill, all of it. The lessons you’ve learned more than just about reputation, but about storytelling and brand building, what’s the number one lesson you’ve learned that you’ve tried to carry with you now to DRK?
Holly: It’s that you should know your values and let those lead you because the reputation and the communications and the marketing and everything else is going to feel forced if you don’t understand what you stand for and what you believe in. And that’s going to differ for every person. But that’s when I see authentic leaders and people who, when I think about reputation, they know exactly who they are, and that’s what drives the way they then think about their reputation and how they position themselves out in the world.
Crayton: Have the true north your center and then the rest will follow.
Crayton: Okay. Holly, we’ve got a lightning round, right? So some questions that I have-
Holly: Do I get to pass if I want to?
Crayton: Sure. Of course.
Holly: Phone a friend.
Crayton: Some questions that I have that are just for you based on your experience, and then some questions that we ask every guest. Okay, first, favorite room in the White House.
Holly: The Oval Office.
Crayton: Okay. Follow up. Best kept secret about the White House. There’s a secret room or a compartment, or-
Holly: Well, I don’t know that this one’s secret. I’ll say the bowling alley. I mean, I think most people know there’s a bowling alley in the White House, but not everybody. And then number two, I always loved, and I suspect this is still true, but it was particularly true in Laura Bush was first lady, there’s a room on the sort of ground level that’s the library, and there’s an actual Dewey Decimal system, like a box that has the Dewey Decimal system. So you can go find all the books according to the Dewey Decimal system in this library room of the White House.
Crayton: Oh, I love it.
Holly: Yeah. Which she’s a former librarian, so that was very appropriate.
Crayton: Favorite exhibit at the George W. Bush Library?
Holly: Well, we did one with Oscar de la Renta that was like eight years ago. And so that was really fun to have all of these fabulous dresses from Oscar’s collection here in Dallas.
Crayton: You can’t say outside of the Bush Library. Favorite presidential library.
Holly: Outside of… The Reagan Library is pretty cool because of Air Force One, and it’s in the mountains in California. And have you ever been there?
Crayton: I have, yes.
Holly: I mean, that view out the window is pretty amazing. They’ve got some pretty good real estate out there.
Crayton: That’s fantastic. Okay. Besides President Bush, favorite American president.
Holly: I mean, Abraham Lincoln.
Crayton: Outside of Laura Bush or Barbara Bush, favorite first lady?
Holly: I think Michelle Obama. She related to people so well.
Crayton: Have you met her?
Holly: I have met her. She’s tall. We’re both tall. We bonded over being 5’11”.
Crayton: Favorite George W. Bush painting. He’s a painter. We didn’t talk about that today.
Holly: Yes. Well, I’m lucky enough to have one in my home.
Crayton: Do you really?
Holly: So it’s the one in my home. It’s an abstract floral. It’s his cold wax method.
Crayton: I love it. We were talking before the recording started that Ari Fleischer, his nickname from President Bush was Ari Bob, did you have a nickname?
Holly: No. He would just kind of say Halls.
Holly: Yeah. He didn’t turn that into, but Halls. “Halls. Hey, Halls.” That was it.
Crayton: Okay, so here are the other questions. What was your favorite subject in school?
Crayton: What’d you major in college?
Holly: Political science and urban studies.
Crayton: Favorite holiday?
Crayton: Favorite hobby.
Holly: Sports. I’m just like a rabid sports fan of all kinds. Chicago Cubs. Indianapolis Colts. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Crayton: You’re from the Midwest.
Holly: I’m from the… Can you tell?
Crayton: Yes. Favorite guilty pleasure.
Holly: Reality television.
Crayton: Ooh, favorite reality television show.
Holly: Oh, the Real Housewives. I can’t believe I admit I watch it, but I do.
Crayton: I love that. Some of the most intelligent people I know, you among them, watch it. Your favorite consumer brand?
Holly: Oh gosh, so many. Well, I don’t know. Okay. This is a particularly recent one. I’m a big fan of Kind bars.
Holly: And we just had Daniel Lubetzky two weeks ago at the Bush Center at our PLS reunion. I love him as a human being too, and I really love Kind bars. They’re good.
Crayton: Okay. Favorite movie?
Crayton: Oh, wow. Okay. That’s a first. Favorite day of the week.
Crayton: Yeah. What is your hidden talent or superpower?
Holly: Oh, I’m really good at directions. I’ve got an internal compass to always be able to say north is this direction.
Crayton: I have to ask you this back on your personalized ones. Favorite person you met while working in the White House.
Holly: While working in the White House, can I do after the White House?
Crayton: Sure. Sure.
Holly: And I have two.
Holly: The Dalai Lama and Bono.
Crayton: Wow. Any story behind those?
Holly: Well, the Dalai Lama, we hosted the Dalai Lama for a visit in 2016 maybe at the Bush Center. And I got to work with the Dalai Lama has a team too, got to work with his team on what that visit looked like, and learned that he gets up at three in the morning and meditates for three hours every morning. His diet is some really kind of crazy diet that the rest of us, so we had to have special food for him. But he and President Bush share a birthday, and so they’ve always had this very funny close bond with a shared birthday. So I remember we had a joint birthday cake for the Dalai Lama and President Bush at lunch.
Crayton: Oh, I love that. And Bono, called him “Prez.” There’s a letter in the-
Holly: And Bono, of course, we gave Bono an award because of all of his work on AIDS relief with President Bush. And so I got to meet him twice actually. And I have a great picture of me talking to Bono, and I don’t know what we were talking about, but I have my head back and I’m laughing. He said something very funny to me. I wish I remember what it was.
Crayton: You were probably saying you still hadn’t found what you were looking for or something like that. Okay. So related, but last, if you could pick one person, alive or dead, that you could have dinner with, who would that be?
Holly: I have had the opportunity to talk to her a lot, but what we have never gotten to talk about, and it’s Condi Rice, I would love to really talk about the sports side with her, because she’s now part owner of the Broncos. She’s such an amazing golfer, the first female member of Augusta. I love that. Part of what I affiliate with her is that she’s a brilliant mind on foreign policy issues. And then she also has this side of sports love, which I have too. So I’d actually want to take her to dinner and talk to her solely about the sports piece.
Holly: Because all my conversations have been serious, and I’d love to be able to do that.
Crayton: Be her friend.
Holly: Yeah, exactly. I mean, and have her bring me along.
Crayton: Yeah. Holly Kuzmich, you get that Reputation matters. Thank you for sharing your fantastic stories from your days at the White House, the Bush Institute, and thank you all for joining us for Reputation Matters, and we’ll see you next time. We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of Reputation Matters. Find us at sunwestpr.com or your favorite podcast streaming service. Until next time.