October 25, 2021

Podcast: A Conversation with Holly Kuzmich, Executive Director of the George W. Bush Institute

The Eyes on Washington Podcast Series
Holly Kuzmich and Lauren Maddox

In this episode of our Public Policy & Regulation Group's Eyes on Washington podcast series, Senior Policy Advisor Lauren Maddox sits down with Holly Kuzmich, Executive Director of the George W. Bush Institute at the Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas. Ms. Kuzmich provides background on the center and highlights the major policy initiatives taking priority at the Bush Institute, including immigration. She touches on President Bush's role at the institute and how his passion for painting is driving policy conversations. They also discuss the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program, a leadership development program headed by Ms. Kuzmich. The conversation wraps up with a discussion about Ms. Kuzmich's path to policy work at the Department of Education and tips for how young professionals can kick start their career in Washington, D.C. 


Podcast Transcript

Lauren Maddox: Hey everybody, great to be with you. I'm Lauren Maddox, Senior Policy Advisor in Holland & Knight's Public Policy and Regulation Division. And my focus area is education policy and regulation, and I'm super pleased today to be joined by Holly Kuzmich. Holly is the Executive Director of the George W. Bush Presidential Library Policy Institute. And so Holly and I used to be former colleagues, too, at the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush Administration under Margaret Spellings leadership. And I'm just delighted, Holly, that you could join me today.

Holly Kuzmich: It's great to be with you. Lauren, thanks for having me.

Lauren Maddox: So, Holly, before we sort of jump in to talking about policy and what you're working on right now, on behalf of the President and First Lady wanted to just acknowledge the passing earlier today of General Colin Powell. Of course, everybody is familiar with his extraordinary career in public service and as well in the military. Of course, he started as a soldier in Vietnam, he went on to be our National Security Advisor and then Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then, of course, Secretary of State during the Bush Administration. But I think maybe a lot of people may not know that he and his wife Alma were very engaged in education as well as part of the America's Promise Alliance. And that was an organization that grew out of a bipartisan presidential summit back in 1997 that General Powell chaired. And it's a great organization across the United States with a big focus on high school graduation rates, increasing those, and I think they've done a significant job but want to just sort of acknowledge his passing. And I know you've done work with the alliance in the past, and so just wanted to offer it up to you to say a few words.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah, obviously it's a real loss and it sort of, you know, came by surprise, I think that we all found out about his passing. I mean, the thing that General Powell is such a trailblazer in so many ways, and one of the things that you and I got to see was how much he translated all of his work in foreign policy and national security and defense, and then also cared so much about education. And he didn't sort of limit his leadership to one particular issue area and was so really passionate about providing a level playing field for kids all across this country and really devoted himself to that work of the America's Promise Alliance and to getting more kids to graduate from high school on time and be prepared for college and he just leaves such a legacy to this country.

Background on the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Institute

Lauren Maddox: Truly an extraordinary career, and I share all those thoughts as well. And just, of course, condolences to Mrs. Powell. So Holly, let's now pivot to your role leading President Bush's policy institute and advancing issues that he and the first lady, of course, have cared about for decades. Education, immigration and veterans' issues, leadership and, of course, economic growth. So, if you would talk for just a few minutes, well first a lot of people don't even have never visited a presidential library and museum, so talk about that and then sort of the intersection with the policy institute and all of that. So if you can tell us a little bit about your work there, that would be great.

Holly Kuzmich: Well, you know, every presidential library is a little bit different when presidents leave office, they get to decide where they want their library. And, you know, the Bushs obviously chose Dallas. There were already two in Texas. There was his dad's in College Station at Texas A&M, and LBJ's is in Austin at the University of Texas. The Baker Institute had already been created at Rice University, and Laura Bush went to SMU. So it was sort of a natural fit to put it in Dallas, on the campus of SMU. The museum and library is not always co-located with what I do, which is run the institute and the nonprofit foundation side of a former president's work. They sometimes decide to co-locate them, sometimes they decide to have them be in very different places. So the policy institute is actually co-located, we're half of the building in Dallas and then the other half of the building is the museum and library, and every president has to go raise the money to build their museum and library when they leave office. It is not taxpayer money that goes into the building. So when you think about sort of Mount Vernon, that's actually not part of the official National Archives system of presidential libraries, those didn't really come on board until FDR. So since that time, there's been this system of housing the records and creating a museum and that sits on half of our building and then the other half of our building is what I get to do every day, which is the work of the Policy Institute. It's not unrelated, though. I mean, we are two separate organizations. Obviously, the work we focus on, we want it to be forward looking. We're not a legacy organization. Looking back 20 years ago at what President Bush did in office, but a lot of the issues that he cares about and the Bushs care about and that we work on in the institute are things that translate from their time in office. So when you go through the museum, you see a lot of issues that tie to what we work on today.

The work we focus on, we want it to be forward looking. We're not a legacy organization.

Lauren Maddox: And the museum, of course, is open to the public?

Holly Kuzmich: Right.

President Bush's Role at the Institute

Lauren Maddox: And how often do you engage with the former president and first lady? Are they very engaged in this sort of policy setting and direction or how does that work?

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah, they were obviously very engaged when it was created to sort of help set the direction of the issues that we work on at the institute and they are still involved to this day you know, at that level to help us sort of set direction for what we're doing and then be our ambassadors and spokespeople at times for the issues we work on. But one of the things that they care very deeply about is they want the policy institute to live long beyond them. So part of my job is helping to build up the work of the institute and our team so that we're not dependent on the Bushs as our ambassadors and spokespeople. So, you know, anyone who knows President Bush knows he's not a micromanager, he's really good at delegating and he does that now. So I get to interact with him, you know, fairly frequently. But he is not in there, you know, he wants to be retired and so he is not in my business telling me what to do every single day.

Immigration Policy Push 

Lauren Maddox: Now he just released a book, immigration of portraits, and he's really making sort of a public push right now, right for policymakers to come together across the political spectrum. And I know he was close back in the day to getting immigration reform passed, and I think there is just sort of momentum today again. But anyway, talk a little bit about that push and the book and all of that.

Holly Kuzmich: Well, you know, we've actually worked on immigration policy since the institute opened. And obviously, he's always really been saddened that he wasn't able to get it through in 2006 and 2007. And of course, then there was the Gang of Eight attempt again in 2013. It didn't get through that time. That bill looked fairly similar to what was considered in that '06 '07 period. Even a lot of the ideas that we're talking about today are reminiscent of all of that. We've known for a very long time that our system needs reform, and we still haven't been able to get it over the finish line. And so while we have been doing work as an institute on this, you know, folks came to him and said, President Bush, will you kind of become louder on this topic? And he's always, as people have noticed, he's been very careful. He wants to use his voice. But he's also been very careful to not get in the middle of telling presidents who come after him how to do their job and sort of getting knee deep in legislative politics. And because he had become a painter, he said, "well, how about if I use painting as my medium to tell the stories of immigrants to this country," so that's exactly what he did in putting the book out. We've obviously, at the institute, used it as a real way to sort of talk about the issue. Our team obviously does more of that day to day work on Capitol Hill to work with policymakers and try and get them to really sort of move the needle on this issue. And so that's what we're trying to do, and we also do have his art on exhibit. The paintings that are in the book are on exhibit at the museum and library. So what's been fun about all of this is that he's out there, he's using the book, we're using our policy work. We have got podcasts of our own highlighting stories of immigrants. We've got his art on exhibit, so we're trying to find sort of multiple ways to paint the picture.

He [President Bush] wants to use his voice. But he's also been very careful to not get in the middle of telling presidents who come after him how to do their job and sort of getting knee deep in legislative politics.

Lauren Maddox: This is a traveling exhibit. Correct?

Holly Kuzmich: Well, it will be. This is, you know, this is the first showing in Dallas. But yes, we will. We did the same thing years ago when he had his portraits of veterans that also became a traveling exhibit. And so we'll do the same with these portraits of immigrants.

Lauren Maddox: And that's terrific. I mean, who knew about that hidden talent?

Holly Kuzmich: He works on it, hard.

Lauren Maddox: Love it. Has he done your portrait yet?

Holly Kuzmich: No, and I don't want him to. He talks about painting Laura and that she has never been happy with that painting. And, you know, he's become a pretty good portrait painter. But you know, there are certainly some tough critics and he doesn't want to go there.

The Presidential Leadership Scholars Program

Lauren Maddox: That's great, I love it. So real quick, too. I'm a little bit familiar with the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, but it is a great bipartisan sort of initiative on the presidential level. Can you talk a little bit about that? And if anybody listening, you know might be interested in applying? How does that work?

Holly Kuzmich: OK, well, Lauren, this was the brainchild of our former boss Margaret Spellings, who thought about when she came to be CEO the Bush Center back in 2013. She knew that President Bush and President Clinton had established more of a friendship sort of in their time after office. She knew President Clinton and President George H.W. Bush had a very close relationship in terms of a lot of the disaster relief they had done together. She also put together the fact that we have three presidential libraries and foundations in Texas, which is more than any other state in the country. And of course, you know, Texans love to brag on that and that when you think about George Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and LBJ, it's two Republicans and two Democrats who led through very consequential times over the past 50 years. So we created this leadership program for people mid-career professionals across the U.S. that takes examples of presidential leadership and uses those as case studies on developing leaders across this country. And part of what we knew we wanted in this program was to have a real diversity of people in terms of where they live, political ideology, race, gender, profession, et cetera. And we do, we have this amazing sort of group of people. We've now done it for six years. We're about to select our seventh class this fall. The people in it are phenomenal. And actually 10 of the graduates of the Presidential Leadership Scholars program are people President Bush painted in his "Out of Many, One" book who are immigrants. And so, you know, these are just people doing amazing things, but they come from very diverse backgrounds and professions, and they come to each of the four presidential centers that are part of the program.

We created this leadership program for people mid-career professionals across the U.S. that takes examples of presidential leadership and uses those as case studies on developing leaders across this country.

Lauren Maddox: And so typical class size, and then is there an age group you're looking for like, are they like mid-career type people? What's the kind of goal? And then how long is the program? What kind of commitment and is there a cost to this?

Holly Kuzmich: No cost. We fundraise so that it's free of cost, which is what helps us get a diverse group of people. It's a class of about 60, which can feel a little bit big, but that's also the way we really get diversity is, you know, we bring a fairly decently sized group together. It's a six month program once a month for six months so people can keep their job and do this. They have to be dedicated to the program, but they can still manage it. We always accept applications, we usually open it up sometime in May or June, usually around Memorial Day and sort of accept applications through the summer. And it's an open application. You do not have to be nominated to be part of it. That's also part of our commitment to making sure, you know we had the police chief in Dubuque, Iowa, in the program a couple of years ago, and he read about it in USA today. That's how he found out about it. And we want that kind of thing. We're not training people for public service. We certainly ask people they have to come into the program with what we call a personal leadership project. So it's some way that they're trying to do something good in their community and their community can be their neighborhood, it can be their city, it can be their state, it can be the country, it can even be globally. And so people are all committed to sort of the ideals of this country and are interested in being dropped inside of a diverse program where they get exposed to a whole variety of interesting leadership content. But then honestly, part of the magic of the program is the other people, the network they build in the program itself. And we see scholars doing work together in ways that they never would have. People they would have never thought they were going to meet and be friends with, suddenly striking up a friendship and doing business together. So it's a lot of fun.

Part of the magic of the program is the other people, the network they build in the program itself. And we see scholars doing work together in ways that they never would have.

Lauren Maddox: And they have access to both President Bush and to President Clinton?

Holly Kuzmich: They do. They both participate in the program and do very off the record sessions with our scholars. As you might imagine, it's one of the most popular pieces. The thing I didn't answer is it's mid-career professionals. Average age is about 40. We don't have an age sort of minimum or maximum, so you see people age 30 to in their early to mid 50s.

Lauren Maddox: It's sort of like a mini MBA, you know, a program for six months and you can still continue working. I think that's the best part of it. So it's a commitment, but one that I think is, you know, enjoyable and doable. Does it happen on the weekends or do they have to give up week time?

Holly Kuzmich: It's usually like a Thursday through Saturday, so they have to give up some work time. But we try and make it as manageable as possible. And you know, as you might imagine, we've been lucky and that this is a, you know, people sort of can understand the value of the program and employers have been very supportive of letting their team members participate. We've had members of the military participate. We've had doctors, you know, we have a heart transplant surgeon currently in the program, and she's somehow able to work it out. And we're glad she is.

Relationship and Collaboration with Southern Methodist University (SMU)

Lauren Maddox: Wow. I think that's tremendous. Congratulations on that and to the incoming class. So you mentioned earlier, Holly SMU, and I know that's where the first lady had graduated from. What kind of connection do you have, and ongoing connection? I've been to the museum and the center and it's beautiful and it's right near campus. But is there any formal sort of interaction or is it just you just have to be in proximity?

Holly Kuzmich: Well, there's a variety of ways. President Bush didn't want to sort of force an interaction that didn't feel natural with the faculty at SMU. So we've built up a whole variety of things over the years. One of the main things we've done since day one is we have many interns from SMU come over and work in the Bush Center and in the Bush Institute. We have a fellowship program for business school students who come do research projects in the institute. We have faculty members at SMU who teach in our leadership programs. We have a joint initiative actually, our work in economic growth we actually now do jointly with SMU and the economics department there, and we fund some of the Ph.D. students that come into the university. And so we've found sort of all kinds of ways to build up our work together, and we'll continue to do that into the future.

Ms. Kuzmich's Path to Policy Work in Washington, D.C.

Lauren Maddox: That's great. That's terrific. Well, let's just pivot a little bit to a little bit further back in history, sort of how did you get to D.C., I mean, let me just say this too Holly, I have always been impressed as a colleague of yours back in the day, Department of Education, you make it look easy the whole policy engagement and development. But it's not for everybody. But it sure is a gift of yours. So tell me a little bit, did you always want to do policy? Were you always drawn to D.C.? Tell us a little bit about that history.

Holly Kuzmich: No, and no and no. I had no idea what I was going to do. I was one of those college students who you know, did well in school, but like, had no idea what I was going to do with it all. I studied urban studies as a double major. I had to double major at Northwestern. I first started as a sociology major and I didn't like sociology, so I moved to poly sci, not because I thought I was going to actually end up in public policy. I thought maybe I was going to go to law school and on the off chance, the summer after my junior year, I applied to be an intern in the Senate. And I got it from my home state senator Dan Coats. And that obviously sort of changed the trajectory of my career. And it wasn't even so much that I did it and thought I'm in love with this. But then his office offered me a job after graduating. So like, it was the shortest distance between graduating and having, you know, a salary of some kind. And I started out low man on the totem pole, answered the phones in the Senate office. But I mean, that is to me, one of the best educations you can get in policy because you've got to figure out what's going on in the Senate floor immediately so that when the constituent calls and you answer the phone, you can give them an answer of some kind. So no, it wasn't like I planned out and thought, I'm going to be a policy person. It just sort of happened. But I've always had is like a nose for current events and staying up on things and reading the newspaper and like just pulling lots of disparate pieces of information together.

I started out low man on the totem pole, answered the phones in the Senate office... that is to me, one of the best educations you can get in policy because you've got to figure out what's going on in the Senate floor immediately so that when the constituent calls and you answer the phone, you can give them an answer of some kind.

Lauren Maddox: And how did you end up in education policy in particular? Do they hand that sort of issue area to you? Or did you ask for that sort of issue area?

Holly Kuzmich: I didn't ask for it, but in hindsight, I got lucky. Obviously because I was an urban studies major I always like sort of domestic and social policy. So, I got lucky that, that was the issue that sort of opened up in the office for me to move into, and it was essentially health, education and labor. And then over time it got skinnied down to education. And so I just I learned it on the job.

Lauren Maddox: That's great. When George W. Bush then went from the governor's office to the White House, how did you hook up with Margaret Spellings, who of course, was an education adviser to him when he was governor and then came with him to Washington. So how did you get a chance to meet with her and then at the White House?

Holly Kuzmich: Well, I got to know her when she was the head of the Domestic Policy Council because I was on the hill. I was working for Tim Hutchinson at the time. I had moved Senate offices and he was on the education committee and he was very involved in it. He's one of about six Republicans who really sort of took the lead in the Senate. So I got to work on it, significantly got to know her a little bit. And I had a friend who was working at the Domestic Policy Council on Health Issues in the White House. And when the staffer who had been doing education, announced she was leaving the office, I got the phone call with the tip from my friend who worked there and said, My colleague is leaving. If you're interested, send in your resume. So I emailed Margaret, and probably about two hours later, I got a phone call saying, Come in tomorrow and interview.

Lauren Maddox: I love it. She moves fast, doesn't she?

Holly Kuzmich: She moves fast. So I, you know, I was lucky. I had a friend who called me and I'm glad that I moved on it quickly.

Lauren Maddox: You were at the right place, at the right time and you were at the White House and for seven years, Holly, after that? Or no, no, no three years.

Holly Kuzmich: Three years, and then I came over to the Department of Education, right.

Lauren Maddox: OK, that's terrific. And you had a couple of different jobs while there, talk a little bit about your work there and policy and strategy, that sort of thing. And of course you were Senate confirmed. You were the last assistant secretary for Legislative and Congressional Affairs, so you had a lot of interaction back with the Hill.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah, I first started when I first came over to the department Margaret was reorganizing because we didn't have a central policy office in the department, so she created that department. She put me in as the deputy with Tom Luce her old friend, she sort of handed me to him whether he liked it or not. And so we got to sort of create the policy process within the Department of Ed, which had never really formally existed. And I borrowed a lot and sort of what I had learned in the White House about how they ran an effective policy process and put all the right people at the table together and prepared for the meeting well and got everyone's input and allowed everyone to say their piece. And then you make a decision and you all go execute.

I borrowed a lot and sort of what I had learned in the White House about how they ran an effective policy process and put all the right people at the table together and prepared for the meeting well and got everyone's input and allowed everyone to say their piece. And then you make a decision and you all go execute.

Lauren Maddox: See, this is what I'm saying is you make it sound so easy and I know how much work goes into it, but you clearly love it and you're clearly great at it.

Holly Kuzmich: Well, thank you. But I mean, it also just takes like, yes, you have to put some prep work into it all and you have to be, you know, I've tried to always be fair about it, right? Like, you give people an opportunity to speak and that's what leads to buy-in in the decision. You may not always take their point of view, but you hear them out. You allow them to contribute. And that's what contributes to a fair and efficient process. And I've seen that actually play out and a whole lot of different ways, or I've seen it play out when it doesn't go that way. And then you have hurt feelings and people not buying in and people stabbing each other in the back and talking behind each other. And that's obviously not what you want to see.

Lauren Maddox: Yeah, I think that's right you want to get people invested from the get go. And like you said, I've seen it too. Where you don't always maybe take every idea that they have, but maybe something that they offer up at the table. You take that on and they feel invested throughout, and they're supportive of the outcome. So, yeah, I think that's a great approach.

Holly Kuzmich: Well, and I will say so this concept, we actually we go deep on this topic in our Presidential Leadership Scholars program. So when we pick a leadership topic that we talk about with each of the presidents and for President Bush's decision making and we actually talk about the process, how did he set it up? How did the White House work? How did you lead meetings? Keith Hennessey, who headed the National Economic Council, is one of our and now teaches at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He helps teach this topic to people, and it's amazing. I don't know. Maybe it's not amazing, but a lot of people never put thought into it and then wonder why their processes kind of fall apart or they don't have buy-in and they don't have a team mentality. And so he actually literally teaches how to do this so that you: one, get better decisions and number two, you have a better culture among your colleagues to be able to move things along.

Fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School of Politics

Lauren Maddox: And at the end of the day, I think it makes the execution of that policy decision that much easier. So you've got a very cool fellowship this fall, and I want to talk a little bit about that. So you were selected as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Politics, so I believe you're there for six months.

Holly Kuzmich: It's a semester. So it's about three to four.

Lauren Maddox: OK, so how does that sort of even compare to the Presidential Leadership Scholars program? Is it completely different? I mean, how did you sort of get involved in this and you know first, congratulations, of course and then a little bit about it and how you think you'll use this experience?

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah. So this is a fellowship that other people I've known have done it over the years. They've been doing it for about 40 years here at the Kennedy School and the Institute of Politics is in the Kennedy School. I never knew this before I really became part of it, was created to engage undergrads because, of course, the Kennedy School is a Graduate School and the Kennedy family cared about some way to be able to interact with undergrads who care about public policy. So they created this fellowship. They bring in six people a semester from a variety of backgrounds, a lot of policy, politics, journalism in particular. We each have to lead a study group on a topic that we propose, so it's a noncredit class for undergrads, so they're not required to come, but they still want to show up anyway. What motivates them is they don't have homework and there's no tests so they can add it on to their current class load without it feeling like a burden. And I've partly taken some of what I do in my day job at the Bush Institute or in our Presidential Leadership Scholars program in terms of thinking about the content and the topics. But I'm also interacting with undergrads. So these are 19 year olds and my study group is on policy making and I'm using three different case studies two issues where we've been able to make some progress on No Child Left Behind and PEPFAR and then the topic of immigration, where we haven't been able to. And I'm talking about, you know, how do you build coalitions, how do you advance ideas, how do you use data, how do you secure passage? What is implementation look like? How do you sustain something 20 years later? Or in the case of immigration, why can't we seem to get our act together and what's behind the fact that we're not able to do that? So it's been really fun. I've partly wanted to show students that bipartisanship is possible, despite what they might hear and that often, you know, bipartisanship leads to longstanding policy solutions that, yes, they'll get changed over time. But sort of fundamentally, that's where you're going to get longstanding traction.

Lauren Maddox: I couldn't agree more, and I just spent the last two weekends with my son and daughter, who you know, Holly at their parents weekends, and I just walked away from both weekends just so impressed by these young people who are in college. They have wonderful ideas, they're thoughtful so I don't know what your experience is at Harvard, but it's really it just gives me such, I love it, a lot of hope for the future and this next generation of young people coming up.

Holly Kuzmich: Oh my gosh. I mean, the number of activities these kids are involved in, I mean, they're so up on what's happening in the world. The questions I get in the study group, I always try and put myself back in my shoes when I was a 19 year old in college, and I think these kids, like, are paying attention way more than I ever did to what's happening in the world. And they're actually, what I'm so pleased by is they don't seem jaded by any of it yet. It will come, it will come. But they're just really curious. And it's fun to be around people who are curious.

Advice for Young Professionals Looking for a Career in D.C.

Lauren Maddox: Yeah, we have the same thing here at Holland & Knight, we have a great internship program, very competitive process to get involved, but just amazing group of young people who are terrific writers. They're engaged, they're culturally very engaged. And so I always enjoy meeting and working with our interns as well here. So, Holly, just to sort of wrap up this conversation, I'm so grateful for your time today. But so for a young person who wants to come to D.C. to have the kind of career that you've had, which is truly extraordinary. What's your best piece of advice or guidance that you could offer them?

Holly Kuzmich: OK, well, I'm going to give two, but I'll bet I'll make them short and sweet. Number one, and I sort of mentioned this before, like, especially in D.C. read as much as you can, pay attention to everything beyond just maybe the issue areas you work on. You don't have to read every word of The Washington Post every day, but read every headline and read the first few paragraphs of every story so that you at least have a sense for what's happening and you can engage in so many things. And then number two is, I always found this helpful myself, and I think it's why I got promoted is I tried to solve problems for whoever it was I reported to and not just bring them problems, but actually at times, like, really, you know, solve things and just take things off their plate and people want to give you more when that's what they're doing for you. So it's the feedback I always give people about how I think I was able to move, you know, move up the ladder.

Lauren Maddox: You know, that's terrific. I've always given my kids too, a version of that as well. Don't just bring problems, you know, bring up new ideas. They may not take your ideas for solving the problem, but they appreciate the fact that you put some thought into how you would solve it if you were in a position to do so.

Holly Kuzmich: Exactly.

Lauren Maddox: Excellent. Well, Holly, this has been delightful. Really appreciate your time. Best of luck as you work through your fellowship at Harvard and all the work that you're doing at the Policy Institute. Thank you for your service in government as well as what you're doing now. So this has been terrific.

Holly Kuzmich: It's been fun, thanks, Lauren.

Lauren Maddox: All right. OK, have a good rest of your day and thanks everybody who's listening in. Really appreciate it.

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