Beyond Party Lines: Barbara Bush & Literacy

Like Nancy Reagan with her “Just Say No” campaign to tie in conveniently with the War on Drugs platform taken by Ronald (now, in retrospect, more tolerable than Donald) in the 1980s, so too, did fellow Republican First Lady Barbara Bush ultimately carve out her own memorable pulpit, though one slightly more beyond party lines than merely trying to keep people from smoking weed. That crusade, appropriately, was the objectively “patrician” pursuit of literacy. For yes, it is mostly highborn people that have the time and the forced inclination to read novels beyond the standard and required of most white people schools Dr. Seuss. And who better than Barbara Bush to instill an honorary sense of highbornness than with her Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy? Of course, like most things, it took a personal issue with literacy for her to glom onto it as a cause, what with her son, Neil, being diagnosed with dyslexia–a shame and scourge upon the Bush name that led her to empower herself by starting the aforementioned charity, of sorts. Targeting the problem of illiteracy at its most prominent source–among low-income families–Bush’s goal was to eliminate the appalling early 1980s statistic: “35 million adults in the United States could not read above the eighth-grade level and that 23 million were not able to read beyond a fourth-grade level. ”

In the wake of her death, her ongoing cause served as one of the primary talking points regarding the value of her life, which, in turn, says something positive about the reverence people still have for reading, continuously aware of how it affects not just one’s overall intelligence, but critical thinking and sense of morality. For where would we all be if not for that initial steady diet of Hans Christian Andersen? Committing homicides and stealing more often than we already do. That’s where. Thus, Barbara’s enduring devotion to the spread of literacy throughout a country otherwise generally content to chew on the cud of mass media is telling not only of her adorable old ladyness (for she was the type of woman who was born an old lady–it’s simply that way with people named Barbara), but also of her break with expected party line traditions. Because, let’s face it, before Barbara, Republican First Ladies were decidedly base in their “march” toward a goal.

However, Barbara’s birth in “pinko” New York City, paired with an early interest in reading that found her positively associating it with coming together with her family in the evenings to pore over literature together, made her a lifelong acolyte of the written word. That her father was the president of the McCall corporation (the well-known publisher of the magazine of the same name and Redbook) likely only added to the fire of Barbara’s enthusiasm. What’s more, Barbara ultimately became a Smith girl, a college highly antithetical to eventually marrying one of the most quintessentially Republican presidents of all-time, the OG George Bush. Even so, she seemed to make the most of the doltish men that surrounded her, even allowing Jeb Bush a spot as a co-chair on the foundation as a way to possibly suggest that maybe he ought to pick up a book every now and again. Then, of course, there is that famous scene of George W. Bush sitting in a classroom with the words “Reading Makes a Country Great” behind him as he watches children with better reading comprehension recite words from the board just moments before being informed of the World Trade Center being blown to bits by two airplanes only to sit there frozen before absently picking up a children’s book and reading, likely thinking, “Fuck, I have to actually do something now.”

The point is, of course, that Barbara clearly passed this sense of duty about literacy onto her sons, in addition to the many other classrooms and homes she entered (via the television masterpieces Sesame Street and The Oprah Winfrey Show) tirelessly (or at least “tirelessly” by a rich person’s definition). And, as a result, maybe, just maybe, America is a little less daft than it otherwise would be. Not by much. But ever so slightly. And it’s all because of one very special Republican lady whose appeal transcended party lines.

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