April 19, 2018

Will the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy call it a day?


Barbara Bush reading to kids with John Ashcroft in 1991.

Obituaries are flooding in for Barbara Bush, the matriarch who saw both her husband and her son assume the presidency. Bush passed on yesterday at the age of ninety-two.

Regardless of one’s views on either Bush presidency, it is undeniable that the former First Lady will be remembered as a tireless advocate for adult and child literacy, both during and after her years in the White House. Even before the founding of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literary in 1989, Barbara had spent years working on behalf of those with reading disabilities or disadvantages, a cause she took up after her then-teenage son Neil Mallow Bush was diagnosed with dyslexia. Image search “Barbara Bush Reading” and photos of the grandmotherly Bush reading to young kids populate the screen.

This concern spread to other members of the Bush family, and remains one of their more commendable qualities. Bush’s daughter-in-law and fellow former FLOTUS Laura Bush maintains her own foundation to keep American libraries open. Bush’s son Jeb Bush (please clap) briefly co-chaired the Foundation after his mother stepped down as chairwoman in 2012. And who can forget what George W. Bush was doing the morning of 9/11 — reading a book to schoolchildren.

The full reach of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy appears to be staggering. According to Marisol Bello, writing in USA Today in 2014, the Foundation was then receiving grants as large as $125,000, to fund 1,500 literacy programs in all fifty states. The Foundation’s website has currently been re-configured as a memorial to Bush, and so, aside from a few vague fact sheets with cursory bullet points, does not offer much detail right now. What you can easily find, however, is a “thoughts and prayers” tribute page in Bush’s memory, as well as a solicitation to make a memorial gift to the Foundation. That’s kind of about it.

A Google investigation into the Foundation’s current work yields interesting results. The Barbara Bush Literacy Corps has a phone number and address. The National Federation of Republican Women held a literacy contest in Bush’s honor in 2017, with the winning chapter receiving a copy of Bill O’Reilly’s Lincoln’s Last Days: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever and Peter Barnes’s Little Miss PatriotTalk With Me Baby, a coalition “working to bring the concept of language nutrition into public awareness and educate caregivers on the importance of talking with their baby every day, in an effort to close the word gap,” partnered with the Foundation in 2016 to create a toolkit designed to make their methods and materials available across the internet. And it gives an annual “Champion for Literacy” award — this year’s went to the Dollar General Literacy Program. Yeah, that is a thing that exists.

It’s possible that the Foundation, at least on a national level, will publicly wind things down (see update). At least that’s my guess. If this were to happen, smaller organizations, like the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Program, would presumably work to fill in any gaps.

The main point is that raising literacy rates is an awesome endeavor and it needs all the help it can get, however it can get it. And hey, there are surely some people out there who fondly remember being read to by Barbara Bush.


Update: After publishing this piece, we received a phone call from the Barbara Bush Family Literacy Foundation. As for our speculation that the Foundation might “publicly wind things down,” a spokesperson clarified that this is not in the offing, explaining, “That would be the farthest thing possible from Mrs. Bush’s wishes — the real legacy work begins now.” Also, an earlier version of this piece misidentified the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Program as a charter project of the Foundation; in fact, it is a discrete, local organization, with which the Foundation has at times collaborated. We regret the error.



Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.