Interviewee: Margaret Spellings
Current: Director, George W. Bush Presidential Center
In 2004: White House Domestic Policy Adviser
Interviewer: Dr. Michael Nelson
Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College
Fellow, SMU Center for Presidential History
May 6, 2014
This transcription has been prepared according to the strictest practices of the academic and transcription communities and offers our best good-faith effort at reproducing in text our subject’s spoken words. In all cases, however, the video of this interview represents the definitive version of the words spoken by interviewees.
Q: Secretary Spellings, Margaret, 2004 is usually thought of as an election that was pretty much about national security, and people compare that with 2000, where George W. Bush, Governor of Texas, seemed to center his campaign on domestic initiatives like education. How were you involved in either of these elections, or both of them, and did they feel different to you?
SPELLINGS: Well, I was involved in quite similar ways in both elections. I was working for the State of Texas in the governor’s office during the 2000 race, and eventually joined the transition team and so forth, and was one of the people that, you know, obviously abiding all the right, you know, laws and procedures, you know, was — you know, cross-pollinated with some of our friends in the campaign world, because obviously the president’s record [00:01:00] and his experience in Texas had anchored many of the policies, and you know, obviously when you’re running for elected office, what you’ve done in the past is highly, you know, relevant.
And likewise, in 2004, the subject of this interview, I was at the White House as the domestic policy advisor. I was named the Secretary of Education-designate after the election, but in that lead-up to, which I would say, goes over the course of about a year really, through the convention and those sorts of things, very involved, obviously in some way with the campaign.
So, I would say a couple of things. One is — and this is certainly true of the Bush presidency, and maybe other presidents — you know, the first thing that people are going to ask is, you know, what have you done, what have you accomplished? When you ran in 2000, you said you would, X. And in that four-year period, what have you done, you know, to live up [00:02:00] to your campaign promises? And I remember, clearly that was something that we monitored and worked on from day one, and were very aware of, you know. We have a little blue book; I’ll show you the little blue book, which is the president’s, you know, 2000 campaign speeches, you know, what he called for. And we literally kept a report card ongoing, you know. What have we gotten done, what have we not gotten done, and what have we gotten some, you know, half a loaf on each of these various — in my case, things I was monitoring, you know, domestic initiatives. Clearly, No Child Left Behind was a signature accomplishment of the first term. And, you know, there were many others obviously, but one I was very much involved with. And as we, you know, went through, not only what have we done, but how are we going to build on that? Why — what was the imperative, why did it make sense for people to vote for, and ask for — you know, renew [00:03:00] George W. Bush’s lease on the White House? And so we looked at those policy things, both from accomplishments, but what were the next steps? And clearly, I can give you some illustrations about how we built on those policy themes throughout.
I can also remember, and this is kind of a funny story, no one will remember, but I shall never forget. We had vaccine problems, the various vaccine manufacturers, and there are not very many in the world, I’ve learned — certainly learned, new at the time–that produce the influenza vaccine. Making a flu vaccine, at least then, you know, is a process, where, you know, eggs, and chickens, and incubating, and you know, it just takes a certain amount of time to make vaccine. And we had had breaches in some of the manufacturing facilities, and we didn’t have enough vaccine, simple as that. [00:04:00] Further, we had a quite virulent flu outbreak in that fall, and I remember, you know, calling on my healthcare people to provide, you know, very regular, and I’m talking more than once a week, every couple of days, you know, updates on where was the flu, how was the vaccine tracking, and — you know, because these are real-time, when you’re running the government, you know, issues that the American people are confronting, and we wanted to make sure that, you know, that we were on top of where the big flu outbreaks were given our limited supply that year of a flu vaccine.
Q: Well, we’re going to come back to a lot of the things you’ve touched on, but let me start with this: what did you do in the 2000 campaign, and what did you do that was at least related to the 2004 campaign?
SPELLINGS: Well, my own personal lens, obviously, was primarily in the field of education, though [00:05:00] in 2004, I was the domestic policy advisor, and had a broader portfolio, and you know, monitored and oversaw a full range of, you know, campaign promises, and what we had done to fulfill those, and so forth, including immigration reform, among others. But you know, my deepest experience, and frankly at this late juncture, you know, my most vivid memories would be in the field of education. So in 2000, we — you know, used what Bush had done as Governor of Texas to anchor the development of No Child Left Behind, what came to be known as No Child Left Behind. And it was really a pretty simple piece of legislation in its grounding, and that is that, you know, we needed to close the achievement gap, that, you know, way too many of our poor minority students were falling way behind, that the federal role in education had always been around the needs of those students [00:06:00] since the federal role was established by LBJ, another Texas president, and you know, furthered. But what was missing was true accountability for meeting those objectives. It was more of a moral, you know, do-gooding than it was, we’re really going to hold ourselves accountable for the policy. So given what we’d done in Texas with testing, and assessment, and transparency, and disaggregated data, and consequences, and so forth, we used that to incubate what became this national, you know, platform for No Child Left Behind. We had passed that law, in early 2001 it was signed into law, and we were in the early days of implementation, taking states that went from, you know, having virtually no accountability or standard systems at all into full implementation to the law, and then meeting in 2004 to describe, you know, what’s next, or how did the law need to be refined, what were other things that could be built on, [00:07:00] or around, or perfected out of No Child Left Behind. And in 2004, we called for, you know, the securing of a reauthorization which, Mike, I’m sad to say, sits unreauthorized to this day, you know, some 12 plus years later.
Q: Education isn’t usually an issue that you think of at the core of a Republican presidential campaign.
SPELLINGS: Yes, I’ve noticed that.
Q: How did it become that for George W. Bush in 2000?
SPELLINGS: Yeah, well you might recall, President Bush — or Governor Bush, at that time, you know, fancied himself, and described himself in two ways: one as a different kind of Republican, and that different kind of a Republican was as a compassionate conservative. And he talked about education reform, when the standard Republican orthodoxy was, you know, abolish the Department of Education, return — you know, stop spending money, and/or return all authorities, or prerogatives to states [00:08:00] solely. And Pres—then-Governor Bush believed that well we had established this role, it was around the needs of poor minority students primarily, that we had done — you know, had fallen far short of really doing that work on their behalf, and that we needed to really muscle up, if we were going to invest those resources, we needed to have something to show for it. And you know, what was Republican about that was, you know, accountability, and kind of a no-excuses approach to, we’re going to do what it takes to meet the needs of those students. So compassionate conservatism was part of his orthodoxy. It manifested itself in education, but also in the faith-based initiative, and very — you know, immigration reform, family reunification, just a variety of ways. Of course, you know, AIDS, PEPFAR, that was another manifestation, eventually. But he was a different kind of Republican [00:09:00] and, you know, I hope that compassionate conservatism still is.