COLLEGE STATION, Texas — House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi praised George H.W. Bush as she spoke Monday evening on potentially hostile turf at the former president's government school at conservative-leaning Texas A&M University.
"It's a great privilege to spend President's Day with President George Bush," Pelosi said to applause. "His name and his presidency are synonymous with the word 'civility.'"
Pelosi called the Republican Bush a "strong president, confident to speak of a kinder, gentler America." And she hailed him for his work with former President Bill Clinton, raising money for disaster recovery in Haiti and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Pacific tsunami. She also complimented his courage to skydive while in his 80s.
The California liberal was greeted warmly by an overflow crowd of more than 600 people at the College Station school. Her appearance was billed as a conversation, with Andrew Card, acting dean of the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service, as moderator. Card was deputy chief of staff during Bush's White House years and chief of staff when Bush's son, George W. Bush, was president.
The elder Bush, who invited Pelosi, arrived through a side door at the front of the auditorium riding a motorized chair. He did not speak at the event. He and his wife, Barbara, watched from the front row.
Pelosi, 71, lost her post as the nation's first female House speaker when the GOP took over the House in the 2010 elections.
Her first full House term coincided with the elder Bush's election as president in 1988. Beginning 12 years later, when George W. Bush was in the White House, she was in the Democratic leadership during much of his two terms. In 2008 as his second term wound down, Pelosi described the younger Bush as "a total failure" who had lost all credibility with the American people.
No such animosity was expressed during Monday's hourlong event.
Pelosi said during George H.W. Bush's term, she and other House members always believed they were getting a "fair shake." She said the elder Bush and Card "led with a level of civility that taught us a lot and that we miss."
Pelosi and Card shared a large stage with a large Bush presidential seal hovering over them and U.S. and Texas flags standing behind them. They sat in matching maroon leather chairs, separated by a small table with water glasses.
Card prompted Pelosi to reminisce about how she got into Congress and rose through the ranks to become a Democratic leader, eventually becoming the first female party leader to meet with the president in the Cabinet Room at the White House.
"I never set out to do this," Pelosi said, dismissing stories of her aspiring since age 5 to reach the top levels of government. She said as a teenager, she preferred to "rock around the clock."
"Be ready," she urged students who clearly were in the minority in the audience. "You never know what opportunity might be there."
She said it was important for women to seek public office "whatever their age."
"Know your power and whatever you can bring to the table," Pelosi said.
When Card credited her with breaking Washington's glass ceiling, Pelosi interrupted: "Marble ceiling!"
School officials accepted written questions from the audience before the event. One question asked how Pelosi could practice her Catholicism and advocate contraception under the new health care program.
"The issue is not about contraception," Pelosi said. "It's about women's health."
She acknowledged her stance differed from women in her family.
"I understand that, I respect that," she said. "The fact is, this is no longer and never was an issue of church and state." Instead, she said, it's an "issue of conscience" for each person.
The George H.W. Bush School has regularly hosted political leaders from the U.S. and abroad and A&M officials said it wasn't unusual for the elder Bush to invite political adversaries.
In 2008, he raised eyebrows when he selected frequent critic, liberal Democratic U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, to receive an annual Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service. Other recipients of his award have included former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, former President Ronald Reagan and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose GOP presidential bid this year failed, graduated from A&M, which is steeped in honor and tradition marked particularly by the school's Corps of Cadets. Several members of the corps, in their military-style dress garb, acted as ushers Monday and helped people attending the program to their seats.
Recently retired Defense Secretary Robert Gates was president at A&M when he was plucked by the younger Bush to join his cabinet and then was retained in the defense post by President Barack Obama.