For Mrs. Bush this effort goes a step further. Sitting across from us on a recent morning in her third-floor office at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, she said that her foundation recognizes we’re in a digital age, so libraries need more than just books. But her foundation pays for books and other supplies while working with publishers to encourage discounts and in-kind donations because those actual books are so important.
Running her finger from left to right as if she were reading with a child, Mrs. Bush said we can’t lose sight of the importance of books that children can hold in their hands, where they turn the pages, and read with adults. Physical books enable students to focus, something increasingly important in an age when all ages are spending more time staring at screens.
Keeping the conversation focused, Mrs. Bush returns to the importance of specific learned activities. “Reading from left to right is not intuitive,” she said. “You have to learn it.” As she has said many times, it is crucial for adults — especially parents — to read with new readers, help them through it and fashion moments to celebrate the joy of learning something new and exploring stories. Doing so helps build important bonds, underscores the importance of reading and learning, and gives children an opportunity to let their imaginations run wild. All of this, including the physical act of writing, is important for a child’s intellectual development.
Listening to her talk, we couldn’t help but think of a comment from James J. Blanchard, the chairman of the board of the National Archives Foundation, who said Laura Bush is the “nation’s teacher and librarian.” She has never lost the love and deep interest of using books to connect with and expand the world of children. Nor has she lost sight of the broader importance of reading and education.
Through the George W. Bush Presidential Center, she is working alongside the former president to launch several initiatives to improve leadership in education, increase attention on the critical years of middle school where students build foundational skills that enable them to complete high school, and preserve accountability standards in education.
Given the opportunity, Mrs. Bush puts her work in education and reading into perspective. In a recent speech, she explained that education is a building block of democracy because it enables the next generation to develop the skills and perspective necessary to sustain a free society.
“We must prepare our children and grandchildren with the tools they need to be informed, engaged citizens who care about individual liberty and democracy,” she said in that speech. “We must teach them history. We must insist they understand the government they are blessed to live under. We must teach our children how to listen, to show empathy, to show civility in the face of disagreement, and to overcome malice and hate. And, we must model the behavior ourselves.”
While meeting with us, she builds on that point by noting we need to also deal with the tougher moments of our history. “We have a great country,” she said before noting the mistakes our forebears made. “Slavery, for example, is what George [W. Bush] calls our nation’s birthmark.” But, she continued, the sweep of American history is toward progress, toward the expansion of rights. In short, Americans need to know their history, know how their government works, and they need to be engaged.
In the middle of our conversation, we turn to an issue that put her in the spotlight this year, and we ask her why she decided to engage on it. In late spring, the current administration was following a controversial policy that separated families at the border. News pages were filled with heartbreaking stories about children taken from their parents as they crossed into the country illegally. There was no shortage of commentary on the issue, but there was a lack of direction.
“I woke up on Father’s Day and saw images of children being torn from their families, and it broke my heart. I thought this was a time when my voice could make a difference.” At first, Mrs. Bush told us, she thought about placing a call to the secretary of Homeland Security, who oversees the Border Patrol, but then thought better of it. A private call might sway an official, but a public statement has a better chance of changing the public’s mind and therefore can make more of a difference on an issue like this.
The piece she subsequently published changed policy and reminded us of other examples from the past of how she has led effectively. Two months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for example, she stepped into the public spotlight to deliver the president’s weekly radio address to the nation, something no other first lady had ever done. Those remarks helped shift public attention on Afghanistan from a purely military conflict to one that ultimately would be judged on how that country treats and protects the rights of women.
“Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes,” she said then. “They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. Yet the terrorists who helped rule that country now plot and plan in many countries. And they must be stopped. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
Mrs. Bush went on to visit Afghanistan as first lady, including one trip where she met the first woman to become governor of a province in that country, Habiba Sarabi. When she arrived, Mrs. Bush famously said to Sarabi, “I told you I would come,” which was no small feat given the security risk. Mrs. Bush also led efforts to build civil institutions to protect and expand the rights of women in Afghanistan and across the globe, efforts that continue today.
She pushed to expand the number of women teachers in Afghanistan, for example, to address a cultural issue specific to the country. Women can teach girls and boys there, but girls are constrained from attending classes taught by men. She also helped found and is still engaged with the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, which is seated at Georgetown University and continues to support the expansion of women’s rights in Afghanistan.