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Photo Courtesy of David Bohrer / The White House

On Thursday, Nov. 21, Joshua Bolten ’76, former White House Chief of Staff under President George W. Bush and current CEO and President of Business Roundtable, spoke on campus at a public event organized by the Cliosophic Party. In his years at Old Nassau, the University trustee secured an undergraduate degree from the  Wilson School, serving as president of Ivy Club along the way. After graduating from Princeton, Bolten received a J.D. from Stanford Law School. 

Following his conversation in the Whig Hall Senate Chamber, The Daily Princetonian caught up with Bolten to discuss campus politics, perceptions of President Bush, the reality of Dick Cheney’s portrayal in “Vice,” and more.  

The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

The Daily Princetonian: Welcome home. What’s it like to come home?

Joshua Bolten 76: Princeton feels very much like home, but a home that is more vibrant and interesting and engaged with the world than the home I had here 40-plus years ago.

DP: What was “the home” like when you were here 40-plus years ago?

JB: It was a tight community, but much less vibrant than it is today. Less diverse and less connected to the outside world.

DP: Talking just a little bit about your time on campus, you also mentioned in your talk that you were the president of Ivy Club while you were here. Could you tell me what that was like? Eating clubs were so different from the way they are today.

JB: I think the eating clubs are the same in the sense that they provide a really congenial atmosphere for students to get to know each other ... in a way that’s close to family. That element is the same. 

Today, though, Ivy Club and all of the clubs I’ve visited seem much more alive. I think they are much improved. Those that were all-male, I think they are much improved by now having women as well. And, like I said about the campus overall, they seem much better connected to the outside world than they were when I was an undergraduate.

DP: Did Princeton do anything to prepare you for your jobs in [government] service?

JB: Yeah, Princeton did a lot to prepare me for my roles, especially in government service. And particularly because so much of the education is focused on identifying and pursuing sound principle. That pedagogic focus is one that I think informs the best in public service as well.

DP: Shifting more to the intersection of your time at Princeton and your time in service, right before the meeting adjourned, you said “thank you” to all the people who came here to support conservative life on campus. I was hoping you could talk a little bit more about that in both the context of Princeton and the broader national conversation about political atmospheres on college campuses.

JB: Well, I think it ought to be a matter of great concern at all our universities that there is so much homogeneity of political perspective, both among faculty and students. I know that Princeton is among the institutions that has best recognized that concern. 

When I left government in 2009, I left without any plans for what I was going to do afterwards — in part because it was so busy in the final months of my tenure in the White House, but also because I thought that it’s better for senior public servants to run through the tape at the end of an administration and not be diverted in any way by concerns about what they were going to do next. And I was fortunate enough not to be in a financial situation where I absolutely had to get a job the month after I left the White House.

So, in February of 2009, I was relaxing, visiting my mom, without a job, and I got a phone call out of the blue from [University] President Shirley Tilghman, whom I had never met. She said, “I’m calling because we have a diversity problem at Princeton, and you may be part of the answer.” And I said, “What? Not enough late-middle-aged white Jewish guys?” And she said, “No, not enough conservatives.”

She recruited me to be a visiting professor at the [Woodrow] Wilson School, which we had agreed I would do for one year, but I enjoyed [it] so much that I re-upped for a second year. 

During those two years, I taught a total of six classes, evenly divided between graduate and undergraduate, and had contact with a lot of terrific students, most of whom self-identified as liberal or left-of-center, but all of whom were very receptive and interested in a more conservative perspective, which is hard to find on any campus. 

I feel that part of the value to the students of my having been on campus for those two years was to expose the students to a conservative point of view that is not the cartoon that you might get on Fox News, but rather from an experienced public servant, who had wrestled with important power public policy issues from a conservative perspective, but in many cases coming out in the same place that ... those with a left-of-center perspective would have.

I don't think I changed many minds or changed many students’ approach to their ideology. But, I think it's an important part of education that students be exposed to at least a mainstream conservative viewpoint. Princeton offers a number of ways to do that, not least through the programs and classes that [Professor] Robbie George runs, which I admire greatly.

DP: Your comment about Fox News is interesting to me. You said you wanted to bring a “thinking conservative perspective,” not a caricature that one would see on Fox News. I'm curious what your perceptions are of modern conservative media.

JB: It’s not a perspective that is just critical of conservative media; it’s critical of media in general. MSNBC offers just as distorted a cartoon of leftist thinking as Fox does of rightist thinking. It's because they are not — their programming appears less designed to inform than it does to entertain and titillate and, in doing that, reinforce existing biases. 

It seems to me what’s valuable about interesting news productions, just as with educational programming, is ... in challenging biases and making people question their assumptions rather than reinforce them. 

DP: On that idea of questioning assumptions, I was very interested in what you said about your time working on the [George W.] Bush campaign in trying to combat public perceptions that were less than positive about then-Governor Bush. I’m curious what that’s like. What is it like running a campaign where part of the challenge that you’re facing is, as I believe you said in your own words, the public thinks the candidate isn’t the brightest guy?

JB: Frustrating. It was a frustration that stayed with us throughout eight years in the White House. I cannot tell you how many times I would be in a private meeting with then-President Bush and a participant who had never been exposed to him in person would come up to me and say, “Wow, he’s a lot sharper than I thought; why don't you show that Bush to the American people?” It was always a frustration to us who worked on the inside that the Bush that we saw was not fully portrayed through the media.

And in saying that, I’m not blaming media bias, although I think there was plenty of that. The nature of the way media filters impressions and news often makes it hard for them to see the real character of the political leaders [who] are being portrayed.

DP: On your time in the White House — it's been about a decade now since you left. Looking back, what are you proud of, and are there things that you find yourself reading about in the paper or seeing in the news and you just sort of say to yourself, “Oh no, I really wish we hadn't done that one?”

JB: I don't think much about the do-overs. There’s a lot I am proud of in things done during the Bush administration and how they were done. I’m proud of having been a very small part of the way that the President and the White House responded to 9/11 — in both rallying the country, but also resisting demonization of fellow citizens.

I'm proud, for example, that a couple of days after 9/11, before he went to Ground Zero, President Bush made the decision to go to the mosque in Washington and talk about Islam in a favorable light and remind Americans that there are many American citizens who are Muslims who are great contributors to our society, and that those who perpetrated 9/11 were doing it based on a distortion of Islam, not in furtherance of it.

I'm very proud of the role that I played in President Bush’s program to combat AIDS in Africa. It’s called the PEPFAR program, and it’s the largest program ever in the history of healthcare to combat a single disease. The program has been continued by both the Obama and Trump administrations and, so far, it’s saved nearly 20 million lives in Africa. 

Most Americans don’t know that, and President Bush, when he talks about it, talks about it not to direct credit his way, but he always says he wants his fellow citizens to know what American generosity has accomplished elsewhere in the world.

DP: I would be remiss if I if I didn't bring this up, but obviously the hottest political issue of the day is the impeachment hearings. I’m wondering how you think about them, but also what you think you might do if you were still Chief of Staff in the White House.

JB: Well, I guess I’d probably be acting Chief of Staff anyway. Yeah, I don’t know what I would do as Chief of Staff — I would hope that I would have been in a position to prevent the situation from arising in the first place. 

But what I find disturbing about the impeachment is that it’s just amplified the tribal instincts in our politics, and most Americans don’t seem to be thinking about it in terms of what they think is right and what behavior they expect from their president. They’re just thinking about it in tribal Republican or Democratic terms, and I think that approach is at the core of the dysfunction in our politics today.

DP: During the Bush years, when you were in the White House, Gallup’s tracking poll put the percentage of Americans who [were] satisfied with the direction of our country at a high of 70 percent. 

JB: That’s in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. 

DP: Yeah, which is likely the “Rally ‘round the flag’” effect. But it was still, on average, higher during the Bush years that it has been under Obama or Trump. The number currently sits at 35 percent, and I'm wondering what you think about the future of our politics and the direction in which our government and national culture is heading.

JB: Well, the nature of our political discourse today is very concerning. The toxicity of our politics, I think, is tearing in our social fabric in a way that could have consequences for a long time to come. That said, I’m long-term optimistic. I believe that these episodes of tribalism tend to come and go, sometimes over long cycles, but that the pendulum ultimately swings back. 

One of the reasons why at this session with students that you just attended, organized by Clio, I was particularly complimentary of the conservative students who were there is that my sense is that they are part of a generation that can manage deep policy and even ideological differences in a civil manner.

DP: To wrap up, I’ve got a fun question for you.

JB: Let’s go with the fun one. 

DP: Okay, which political drama do you feel is most accurate to real life, [and] have you seen “Vice,” and is Dick Cheney like that?

JB: I have not seen “Vice.” I did work closely with Dick Cheney, and it sounds like they got him largely wrong. In particular, what I think they got wrong was the widespread misimpression that he was running the government or a substantial part of it during the Bush years. 

If you don't like the Bush policies, don’t blame Cheney — blame Bush, because he was in charge. Cheney was a valued advisor but, certainly during my tenure as chief of staff, he lost as many arguments as he won with other senior advisors to the president. The decisions were the president’s. So yeah, no on “Vice.”

DP: “West Wing,” “House of Cards?”

JB: I used to watch “West Wing” — I did enjoy watching “West Wing,” including when I was in the White House. I remember when I arrived in the White House as Deputy Chief of Staff ... somebody saying to me, “you know, West Wing, how can they even copy your name?” And I had to point out, “Yeah, the Josh on ‘West Wing’ was Deputy Chief of Staff before I was Deputy Chief of Staff.”

We actually had a visit from the cast of “West Wing” during the early months of the Bush administration. Each of us visited with our fictional counterpart and it was good fun. That show did — I mean, it’s not accurate to life in many ways, but it did a pretty good job of distilling the dynamics around tough issues that confront every White House. I think that’s in part true because many of the consultants [who] helped prepare the scripts were people who had worked in the Clinton White House.

DP: All right, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me. I really appreciate it. 

JB: My pleasure. 

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