Opinion: In Memory of Barbara Bush the ‘Every Woman’

Mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, first lady and literacy activist. These are a few of the roles that former First Lady Barbara Bush held during her 92 years of life, and they are each an instrumental part of who she was.

When Bush was campaigning with her husband, George H. W. Bush, for the 1988 presidential election, she presented herself as the quintessential American mother, grandmother and wife. Throughout the campaigns and her husband’s time in office, Barbara Bush highlighted family values and her role of running the household.

Her matronly persona endeared her to the American public, so much so that a Gallup Poll found that 69 percent of Americans viewed her favorably just four months before her husband lost the election. While this “every woman” persona influenced future first ladies, it was her focus on promoting family literacy that left the biggest impact.

According to her autobiography, “Barbara Bush: A Memoir,” Bush decided in 1978 that if she were to become first lady, she would promote issues that she cared about and leave her own legacy. She decided that to address issues of crime, homelessness, drugs and hunger, one must first address the issue of illiteracy and the lack of educational opportunities.

While many first ladies have tried to take on social issues, what made Bush unique was that her solution to promoting education was not to expand government programs to tackle illiteracy. Instead, she chose to focus on promoting literacy in the family.

“The parent is the child’s first teacher,” Bush often said when promoting her literacy programs.

Bush recognized that it is through the support and encouragement of their parents that children are equipped to succeed in school. In recent years, studies by the University of Oxford and the Orelena Hawks Puckett Institute increased the validity of her approach, as they found that the involvement of parents in a child’s education prior to age 7 has a direct impact on their educational achievements as adults.

Long after leaving the White House, Bush continued to champion issues of literacy through the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. For three decades, the foundation has established literacy programs in all 50 states and reduced the number of preschoolers in their programs who were at risk of growing up illiterate from 50 percent to just 14 percent.

Politicians today should take note of the effectiveness of Bush’s methods.

When U.S. Senator James Lankford spoke at Liberty University’s Convocation, he described how issues surrounding a failing educational and criminal justice system stem from the collapse of families. He reiterated a point that Bush had made 30 years prior — to combat the ills of society you must first go to the root of the problem, the deterioration of families.

When Bush passed away on April 17, she left behind the legacy of a 73 year marriage to her husband and a love for reading that was instilled in her children and grandchildren. With the passing of Bush, we are reminded of the insight that came from being a mother, wife and the spouse of a politician. The impact that she made on American politics and education will not soon be forgotten.

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