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Opinion: Call for compassion, understanding at unity conference

Truth Be Told

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“Lead by love and not fear.”

“Have compassion by actions.”

Those were some of the closing statements from Jenna Bush Hager when she spoke in Springfield late last month during Missouri State University’s Public Affairs Conference.

Sitting among the crowd in the packed Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts, her speech felt like a breath of fresh air – a brief reprieve from an oppressive political and cultural climate.

For one, Hager is the third generation of a political dynasty. She’s the daughter and granddaughter of former Republican presidents and the niece of a former governor and presidential candidate, but she doesn’t sound like today’s loudest voices from the right. And for two, she’s an NBC journalist who in the age of “fake news” received a standing ovation.

She didn’t get political, but she did speak freely about the ideals for the country she learned from her parents and grandparents.

When asked by MSU President Clif Smart if it was weird to go from a political family to the press, she said her father didn’t consider the fourth estate as the enemy.

“My dad believed in a free press,” she said. “It’s part of what keeps our country a democracy.”

She quipped that her dad’s favorite joke is that “Jenna is just extending the longstanding Bush relationship with the press.”

Earlier in the day, her mother Laura lovingly reminded an audience at the Bush Presidential Library in Texas that Hager had gone from sticking out her tongue at a photographer in 2004 to being a part of the press five years later.

Hager, thinking aloud in her speech in Springfield, asked why she had brought that up again. The audience laughed along with her as many, I suspect, Googled the photo.

Joking aside, she shared how lucky she is to tell important stories from around the country, like the man who opened a camp for kids whose parents died in the attacks on Sept. 11 and the powerful interview she conducted with poet Maya Angelou a year before her death.

Smart asked Hager to remark on President Donald Trump’s comments earlier that day in his address to the United Nations. He mentioned Trump’s reference to the end of globalism, and she said that made her sad.

You could see it on her face.

“I was raised by people who said, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected,’ and we have a lot in this country,” she said to an applauding crowd.

She reminded the group of her father’s creation of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

Since PEPFAR was launched in 2003 to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa, “Twelve million lives have been saved … and nearly 2 million babies have been born HIV-free to infected mothers,” George W. Bush penned last year in a Washington Post op-ed plea to keep the program funded.

Hager also spoke of her late grandmother Barbara Bush’s moment of humanity at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the states.

It was 1989 and Bush, then first lady, held a sick baby at Grandma’s House, a residential care home in Washington, D.C., for children with HIV or AIDS. Hager said her grandmother wanted the press to be there to capture compassion around an issue that was severely lacking it.

For me, someone whose aunt died from complications related to AIDS in 1988, that photo is really meaningful, and I found myself moved to tears as Hager reminisced about that act.

That’s the power of compassion and unity.

In her own right as a teacher in a poor community in Baltimore, Hager said the plights of her students taught her about the power of compassion.

“No class could have taught me what to say to a child who witnessed a stabbing on their way to school,” she said.

From the outside, it’s easy to put people in a box, but it’s not so easy face-to-face.

Unity in Community was this year’s Public Affairs Conference theme. This topic seems as far away – and as important – as ever. Hager’s speech was a challenge to all of us to show how true compassion is a key to bringing us together.

“Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could have conversations with compassion for people who don’t think like us?” she said. “Find your sisters and your brothers in your community here, and make them feel like they are enough.”

Springfield Business Journal Features Editor Christine Temple can be reached at ctemple@sbj.net.

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