In his lone commencement address of the year, former Florida governor Jeb Bush urged students at a Christian liberal arts college Saturday to reaffirm their socially conservative values, a sign that he is underscoring his own as he considers running in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.
“Remain true to your convictions and your faith,” Bush said, speaking at Grove City College in northwestern Pennsylvania. “This may seem a little challenging today, where we have a federal government that is willingly violating the religious freedom of its citizens. But we don’t have to accept it.”
Dropping a possible hint about his thinking regarding a White House bid, Bush said “if you feel inspired to serve your fellow citizens, don’t let the ugliness of politics keep you from pursuing public office. There is always room for informed, engaged, passionate leaders at every level of government.”
People close to Bush have said his major concern about running is navigating today’s messy spectacle of Twitter wars and super PAC attacks. In January, Bush said, “The decision will be based on, ‘Can I do it joyfully?’ because I think we need to have a candidate to lift our spirits.”
But in a speech delivered to an audience full of evangelical Christians, it was the passages on faith that deviated most from Bush’s frequent talks to Republican and corporate audiences on education and immigration. The speech also comes as other potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates such as Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) are visiting with pastors in key early primary states and planning speeches to religious groups.
“We must recognize the power of loving, committed family life and strong communities as essential for earned success,” Bush said. “Finding ways to restore strong, committed two-parent family life will help break the cycle of poverty for so many.”
Bush, the chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, also commented on the 60th anniversary of the landmark civil rights ruling Brown v. Board of Education, calling the case a critical moment in American history and the anniversary a reminder that more needs to be done to address educational opportunity for students with diverse backgrounds.
“Six decades later, substantial progress has been made through innovative reforms, but not nearly enough,” he said. “Yes, states have fulfilled the letter of this ruling, but not the full promise. A sizeable achievement gap still persists between white and affluent students and poor and minority ones.
“If we can get it right — where a child from Reading, Pennsylvania, has access to the same quality of education as a child from the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia — education can be the great equalizer in America,” he said.
To connect with the undergraduates, Bush playfully cited actor Ashton Kutcher, who last year at the Teen Choice Awards talked about the necessity of a work ethic, calling him a “wise old sage.”
Poking fun at his age, Bush added that students should “accept that Apple will come out with a new operating system just as you figured out how to use the last one. Don’t fight it. This is one area where you are completely powerless.”
The speech was short, running less than 15 minutes, and Bush did not linger long at the school, departing for the airport soon afterward to travel to California for business.
Bush, who served as Florida’s governor from 1999 to 2007, is the son and brother of former presidents and widely considered a leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. In recent months, he has stoked the speculation about his potential candidacy by giving a series of high-profile speeches and raising money for GOP candidates.
A Catholic, Bush has also been building his ties to Christian leaders, including meeting with Russell Moore, one of the country’s most prominent Southern Baptists and head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has more than 16 million members.
Bush was invited to address Grove City College’s 585 graduating students Saturday by Richard G. Jewell, the school’s retiring president and a former Republican fundraiser in the Pittsburgh region.
A Bush adviser said Bush accepted the invitation because of his respect for the college’s mission and said it is the only commencement speech he would give this year.
On its Web site, the college, which was founded by Presbyterian educators and does not accept federal funding, says it “remains true to the visions of its founders, rejecting relativism and secularism.”
Jewell said in an interview that he greatly admires the Bush family and had previously hosted former first lady Laura Bush, who delivered the college’s 2011 commencement address.
“About three weeks ago, we had former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum visit, who I think is almost certainly going to run for president again,” Jewell said. “With Bush, the pot is getting stirred, and he’s becoming a more prominent horse in the race.”
With a chuckle, Jewell said he does not think Bush is quietly ramping up a campaign machine. Instead of dealing with an assistant, he said Bush e-mailed and called him directly, “which is kind of unusual for someone of his stature, but refreshing.”
“When I mentioned this to him, he said, ‘Oh, I always write my own stuff,’ ” Jewell said.
Other links to the Bush family on campus include the college’s incoming president, Paul J. McNulty, a former deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, and professor Paul Kengor, the author of “God and George W. Bush,” a book about faith and the 43rd president.
Bush was paid for speaking at Grove City College through the Washington Speakers Bureau. Jewell and a Bush adviser would not disclose the amount he was compensated. On the company’s Web site, Bush is listed as generally requiring a fee of “$40,001 & up.”