A Celebration of Reading...with the Bushes
Thursday, November 27, 2008
In 1989, former First Lady Barbara Bush aimed her formidable celebrity and clout in a direction Americans of all political stripes could get behind: helping the illiterate to read. She founded The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, and during the ensuing 19 years the charity has awarded some $30 million to more than 700 literacy programs spread across all 50 states. And that is a whole lot of resources helping people of all ages learn to read. Bravo!
Every year President and Mrs. Bush hold three different fund-raiser galas to raise money for the foundation -- one in Houston, one in Dallas, and one in Maryland. Last week, I had the privilege of being one of six authors featured at the Dallas gala, and what a great time we all had. The elder President Bush and Mrs. Bush were delightful -- charming and witty and down to earth. I spent more time with them that day than I imagined I would be able to. First lunch, then dinner, and in the green room before we took to the stage in front of 1,000 guests.
At lunch, I told President Bush that he and I had met once long ago. I was a young reporter in 1984 covering politics for the (oh so powerful and prestigious) Kalamazoo Gazette in western Michigan. Then Vice President Bush swung through town on a campaign swing for his boss, President Reagan. He granted me a one-on-one interview, and for 20 minutes it was just the vice president and me (and, OK, a dozen aides and Secret Service officers) in a room talking. For me, it was a career highlight; for him of course it was a blip. When I told him the story, and how proud my parents were to have a signed photograph from him of our meeting, the famously humble former president seemed genuinely surprised I'd find the encounter worth recounting more than two decades later.
This was not the setting to talk politics, and my mother taught me to keep my mouth shut if I didn't have something positive to say, and yet I thought I should acknowledge the current president's tenure in the White House.
"I bet you're anxious to get your son back home," I told President Bush.
"Yes, I am," he said. "I'm proud of him. So much of the criticism has been unfair." And then he quickly added: "Not all of it. Some of it was deserved. I'll just be glad to get him back home to Texas and out from under the microscope of The New York Times." I was impressed by his candor, at once a proud father yet still able to acknowledge the reality on the ground.
The evening was dubbed "A Celebration of Reading," and my fellow authors and I each were introduced by Mrs. Bush before we read short sections from our books. I read the scene from The Longest Trip Home describing my mother's attempt to turn her very Catholic bedroom into a romantic honeymoon suite for my new bride and me right after our wedding. It drew big laughs from the crowd, even if it was probably slightly on the bawdy side for this kind of event. "Well, that's one we won't forget for a while," Mrs. Bush quipped to the crowd.
As the night concluded, I told President and Mrs. Bush what an honor it was to be included in their event, and that I felt privileged to have been able to help their worthy cause. Just like that young reporter back in Kalamazoo, I'll be talking about this day for a long time to come.
posted by John Grogan at 8:34 AM