Literacy, Leadership and Former First Lady Barbara Bush

By Richard M. Long

Richard Long shares his perspective on working with First Lady Barbara Bush

Reflections on the passing of Mrs. Barbara Bush have shared her strength of character, her passions for literacy and her family, as well as her concern for others. I would like to add my admiration, from my perspective as a literacy advocate representing reading teachers, for her groundbreaking work to bring adult and children’s literacy efforts to the attention of our nation.  

When her husband became the Vice President in 1988, she moved into the vice president’s mansion, a grand structure that she used to bring focus to adult literacy.  She would host gatherings that would bring together leaders from across the diverse field of adult literacy.  At that time there were significant differences between those who thought volunteers were the way to go and those who felt having a publicly funded program were critical.  In reality, in the 1980’s neither touched a significant number of those who needed literacy instruction nor did they have the personnel, materials, or even the amount of paper and pencils that were required.  With her charm, focus, and style, Mrs. Bush helped build an environment where literacy services began to work together, which resulted in gaining credibility with the philanthropic and business communities.

Yet, she wasn’t just about hosting teas.  She also worked behind the scenes to bring government into the game.  Even in the 1980’s it was well known that adults without basic literacy skills were being left behind. Which was bad enough; but they also produced children who were less likely to be successful in schools. Additionally, the predictions of a pending boom in technology and the need for literacy skills in the workplace were lacking.  She was committed not simply to bring educators to the table but also those in welfare and in labor. 

One thing she did was to invite the Secretary of Education to host small set of working breakfast meetings on a quarterly basis to discuss needs but also to make sure that there was actual progress. One of the many smallish ideas was to encourage 16 campuses to use work-study money to have students become literacy tutors in local high-poverty schools.  This was rolled out with great fanfare at the leadership level, as it cost no new money.   As the program was being implemented, I called the 16 sites identifying myself as a literacy advocate working for the reading teachers association.  What I found was important, most campuses had little capacity to provide literacy tutoring support.  Most were simply giving out money to needy students with little regard for any actual tutoring.  In contrast, one campus had decided to do in-depth training for the students, with the hope that this might become a life long commitment.  That school knew that little good would be done by sending undergrads to a high-poverty school eight times a semester with little to no training.  With this oral report, made during one of those quarterly breakfast meetings, several of the high level officials were embarrassed.  Then Mrs. Bush carefully selected the questions to ask to uncover what support was actually needed to make a difference.   She kept everyone’s attention on the problem, but didn’t publicly berate anyone.  She was just the cheerleader, who happened to have a very sharp mind, keen memory, who sat with interesting persons at dinner.

A few years later, now as First Lady, she maintained attention on adult literacy.  In part she helped create the atmosphere in which PBS and ABC created a partnership called Project Literacy US.  Again using the bully pulpit, she convened leaders from around the country to talk about literacy.  She suggested a White House conference on literacy.  This was shortly after the education summit in Charlottesville, and then Gov. Bill Clinton was invited to speak. This was fine with the First Lady, as she knew the problem needed everyone’s attention.  As a bit of an aside, this was my first time to meet Gov. Clinton.  He was late, incredibly focused, and quickly integrated what had been said earlier in this small conference into his remarks. 

However, while getting attention and forcing consensus by her very presence was important, she also was supportive of legislative initiatives.  An idea was brought forward to by a private think tank to create a new federal agency to coordinate literacy activities.   While she never entered into the public discussion, she maintained an interest.  At a critical time, her staff arranged a private briefing for her in the White House; I was told not to tell anyone of my task and warned not to even hint at my association’s particular agenda.   Once again her questions were sharp, but in private there were no kid gloves: This was a bright person asking penetrating questions. 

In the end, with support of congressional Republicans and Democrats, the National Literacy Act of 1991 was passed.  But not everyone who worked in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was in favor of this idea.  This was learned because Mrs. Bush’s staff members would touch base and let it be known who was asking what questions.   Again, not partisan, but certainly there was a presence.  In the end, about 12 people where called into the Oval Office for the signing of the bill.  And true to her style, Mrs. Bush wasn’t there.

Even when her time was up as First Lady, her leadership didn’t stop.  One of the key people working on Project Literacy US, Anderson Clark (a guy who had 200 ideas between breaths), observed that a foundation could be created to give Mrs. Bush a continued national platform to lead by example.  After much thought, and a lot of work, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy was formed.  Twenty-five years later, I attended the commemoration luncheon was held in Houston.  Mrs. Bush brought the gang together again; partially to remember the past accomplishments, but also to show that next generations of Bush family members were talking about how to continue to make a difference.

She never asked anyone in the literacy community to vote for her husband, and in fact most of us didn’t; she only asked that we work harder and better to make a difference.

Richard M. Long is executive director of the Learning First Alliance. Prior to joining LFA, he spent the past four decades working in education policy, including 37 years as the Government Relations Director for the International Reading Association.

This blog was originally posted on Long's Medium blog:

Photo courtesy of George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance.

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Barbara Bush reading to elementary class