First Lady Fires First Shot in Literacy Campaign

Times Staff Writer

The children at the Free Library of Philadelphia giggled when she read them the book, “The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.”

But Tuesday wasn’t that sort of awful time for Barbara Bush, who became a grandmother for the 11th time in the early morning and later launched her campaign as First Lady to help combat illiteracy.

Noting that Pennsylvania has a 29% illiteracy rate and “every major city has a big problem,” Bush said in an interview that expanding the Head Start program for preschoolers to include maternal literacy and job training programs “just makes sense if those women aren’t working. They don’t want to be on welfare. They want to work.”


But asked what she would do to implement such programs, she replied: “I’m not going to see that it happens. I’m going to work very hard to encourage people to see that it happens.”

Referring to Sen. Arlen Specter, (R-Pa.), who accompanied her, she added: “I don’t feel my job is to do the Senator’s job or the President’s job. I feel my job is to encourage the corporate and private sector to help, whether it’s individuals or agencies or Rotary Clubs or Lions’ Clubs.”

Bush visited Philadelphia to help launch its “Love Is Reading Together Week,” a program that included members of Temple University’s Institute on Aging conducting a discussion about the importance of inter-generational ties, stressing reading as a family activity.

When the question arose, “What’s great about grandchildren?” Bush raised her hand, was called on, and answered, “You can love them and read to them and send them home.” The remark produced a roar of laughter.

Bush noted that she and the President had become grandparents for the 11th time early Tuesday when Sharon Bush, wife of the Bushes’ son, Neil, gave birth to 7-pound 2-ounce Ashley Walker Bush in Denver. Bush said they plan to visit the new baby in the next month.

Neil Bush, now a 34-year-old oilman, suffered as a child from dyslexia--a learning disability that causes letters and words to be perceived backwards.


But his problems were not the sole prompting for her interest in literacy, Bush said, noting: “I got interested in literacy because I spent one summer, 1978, thinking about all the things that worried me. And it suddenly came to me that every one of those things--teen-age pregnancy, drugs, everything--would be better if more people could read and write.

“Neil,” she said, “was very fortunate for several reasons. He is a hard-working, disciplined man, and he lived in a city where they had special tutors for people who are dyslexic. He had parents who not only loved him but worked with him and could afford to have help for him.

“We were told Neil would never go to college. He not only went to college but he got a master’s degree. . . . I give Neil enormous credit for that. But I want that for every single American child.”

‘It’s All Good’

Bush said she has had no unpleasant surprises, thus far, as First Lady. “It’s all good. It’s the most wonderful house. I told President Reagan last night--it was his birthday and I called to wish him a happy birthday--and I said I never walk down the halls that I don’t say ‘Thank you’ to Nancy Reagan for making everything work. It’s wonderful. . . . You’re looking at one happy lady.”

Clearly, Bush relished her time reading Judith Viorst’s book to the dozens of fourth- and fifth-graders from Lawton Elementary School gathered around her.

The First Lady told them the incredible story of the young man who “went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair.” His day gets worse. It ends with lima beans at dinner, kissing on television and the Mickey Mouse night light burning out.


Nothing like this has happened to the new First Lady. But if it does, she might remember the last line she read to the children: “My mom says some days are like that.”