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Legacy: Barbara Bush's Approach To Policy And Politics


Now let's talk more about the life of Barbara Bush, who died yesterday at the age of 92. She was, of course, the wife of President George H.W. Bush, as well as the mother of President George W. Bush. And she was also a champion of some policy causes. Here she is in 1994 reflecting on her work in the White House.


BARBARA BUSH: I felt strongly and still feel strongly about illiteracy. Ninety million Americans cannot read, write and comprehend well enough to have a job. That's my priority. And I think you have to have priorities.

GREENE: I want to bring in Myra Gutin. She is a professor at Rider University and also wrote a book about Bush's years in the White House. Professor, welcome.

MYRA GUTIN: Thank you.

GREENE: So in that clip we just heard there, the former first lady talking about you have to have priorities. She clearly had some, including battling illiteracy. I mean, how did she approach this job of first lady, and what did it mean to her?

GUTIN: Well, she was very serious about it. She had had a long and impressive apprenticeship in politics as the wife of a congressman, as the wife of the ambassador to the U.N., as the wife of the liaison to China. So she knew the ups and downs of politics. She knew about the ebbs and flows. And going to the White House, she was very focused on what she might be able to accomplish. And she had had a longstanding interest in illiteracy and thought this was going to be a chance to use the national podium to put it at the top of the national agenda.

GREENE: How much did she achieve in that fight?

GUTIN: She was very successful. There were more programs that were started during her time in the White House to try to combat illiteracy. She helped to co-found the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which provides grants to organizations that are trying to deal with illiteracy and continues right to this day. She gave speeches. She was on TV. She really tried to trumpet the cause everywhere that she went up until about two years ago. Every time she had a speech, she made it a point to bring along a new reader who she could introduce to people and was always very proud of their efforts.

GREENE: Yeah, it was really important to her right up until the final years.

GUTIN: Yes, it was.

GREENE: You know, I think about, I mean, the Republican Party and, you know, even though this is the era of Donald Trump right now, you think about the party and you think of Ronald Reagan, you think of the Bushes. I mean, how seriously did she take her family's role in the party and its legacy?

GUTIN: I think that she was very serious about it. She always defined herself as being more conservative. She always felt too that it was an obligation, one that people who were able to do should be involved in public service - translated in this case as politics. So she was very focused on it.

GREENE: I read a statement from her son, former President George W. Bush, who said that she kept the family laughing until the end. Does that surprise you?

GUTIN: Not at all. She had a wonderful very dry sense of humor. It was said that she was able to provide a little perspective on many situations through the use of laughter, so that doesn't surprise me at all.

GREENE: That was a famous story involving Geraldine Ferraro that maybe she felt like she went a little too far. Can you remind me about that?

GUTIN: Yes. It was 1984, and Mr. Bush was up for election, along with Ronald Reagan. And a comment had been made that maybe Mr. Bush really did not understand the common people, that he was too much of an elitist. And Mrs. Bush took offense at all of this since it came from Ferraro. And she said, well, Geraldine Ferraro is so well-off, so affluent she could buy George Bush over and over again. And she said, and I don't want to say what I think she is but it rhymes with witch.

GREENE: It rhymes with rich.

GUTIN: I'm sorry. It rhymes with rich.

GREENE: I think it rhymes with rich. And then she rolled it back and said, I was talking about the word witch, right?

GUTIN: Yes. Yes. It was Halloween. And later on, she said, yeah, oh, I meant to say witch. And she also wrote later that she felt badly about that. And she called Ferraro and apologized. And she said also that it served as a bit of a cautionary tale from her - for her not to pop off like that. And she said to everyone, the Poet Laureate has retired.

GREENE: Wicked sense of humor, fought illiteracy and was very close to many people very prominent in politics. Former first lady Barbara Bush, we're remembering her life this morning. Professor Myra Gutin has written a book about her, and she joined us. Thank you so much.

GUTIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDOVICO EINAUDI'S "ABC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.