Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in Little Rock Thursday, sharing concerns about growing divisiveness in the world. They spoke along with members of the Little Rock Nine to graduates of a leadership program before severe weather cut the event short.
The event was held in the auditorium at Central High School, with the former world leaders lamenting changes that have led to a hyper-partisan culture.
"We live in a Snapchat, Twitter world in which people form these images and react in a hurry and this is good, or that’s bad," Clinton said.
Former President Bush talked about disappointments and the impact they can have.
"I think it’s really important in life to forgive," Bush said. "If you bear a grudge then you can’t be a leader. If you enable someone who disappointed you to be the center of your life then an outlook will be pessimistic, by the very nature of not forgiving and so, yeah, there’s going to be disappointments. All of us have disappointments and the question is when they happen, how do you deal with them?"
They were speaking to this year's class of graduates from the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, which is a partnership of four presidential libraries.
Blair told them a growing divisiveness worldwide is making it harder for people to work together.
"Anyone who’s in a position of leadership today, they're in a harsher environment. There's a big wall of noise all around you. And that's why I think those of you who are prepared to take these positions have a certain courage actually in doing it," Blair said.
"When you had said there had been a lot of changes here in America in the last few years, well there's been a lot of changes in my country in the last few weeks. But I want to get to the state where you get people more engaged in a debate that's civilized and decent and where people can accept that they can disagree and still find common ground because in the end that's in the interest of the country."
Former President Bush said key is how people deal with setbacks.
"Well there are a lot of disappointments in life. Whether it’s trying to get legislation through Congress or whether it’s being hurt in combat. My advice is just recognizing that and deal with it without self pity because otherwise people aren’t going to follow you," Bush said.
Clinton added that "What President Bush said is right. You’ve got to take criticism seriously, but not personally. You can’t be living in a bundle of resentment. One of America’s biggest problems today is that all of our communications, technology and strategies are designed to build on resentment. Look, there are legitimate resentments. There are legitimate sources of anger, but they’re lousy bases of making decisions and proceeding forward in life."
Also speaking to the group were three of the nine black students who in 1957 integrated Central High.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey said an important component of leadership is knowing when to stand up. She noted only a small percentage of their classmates were responsible for the overt racism they encountered while attending Central, but others let it happen.
"If I were to talk about Central, I think we decided there were about 100 'bad kids,' 20 nice kids, that means we each had maybe two, and 1,900 silent witnesses," Brown-Trickey said, then referencing Jewish holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel, who died earlier this month. "He talked a great deal about that indifference... saying nothing, so in my opinion we have to pay attention to how many people are silent."
Ernest Green, another of the nine, told the crowd there have been positive changes in recent years.
"I think you’re coming to Little Rock at a time when there’s finally real transition occurring," Green said. "Instead of people leaving, because my generation, when you graduated from anybody’s school, the first thing you did was get a bus ticket to somewhere to find out how fast you could leave town. And that all this talent that left the south, whether it was Arkansas or Mississippi or other states, they’re now trying to figure a way to get this brain drain back."
Toward the end of the event the 61 people graduating this year from the Presidential Leadership Scholars program was each called to come pose for pictures with the former presidents. But before the conclusion tornado sirens began sounding outside while many of those inside began receiving emergency alerts on cell phones.
The ceremony continued until crashing sounds were being heard from outside, with one of the program organizers telling the audience, "Folks I think we are experiencing a very serious storm," bringing the event to an abrupt end.
Former presidents Bush and Clinton and former Prime Minister Blair were taken out, while other attendees were led to a downstairs hallway as the storm continued to rage. Through windows in a stairwell, damage could be seen with metal roofing and tree limbs being blown around in a patio area.