An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Passing of a Former First Lady

Apr 18, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

As readers may be aware, this month we are doing a series of interviews featuring famous women. Today, we pause to pay homage to a wonderful first lady, who just passed, Barbara Bush, who gave so much of herself to the United States.

1) Professor Elder, what do you see as her main contributions and how will she be regarded by history as time passes?

Throughout much of American History, the nation’s citizens had virtually no knowledge of the wives of the presidents. While exceptions (notably Dolly Madison and Mary Todd Lincoln) occurred, most First Ladies existed in almost total obscurity. This began to change with Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Rather than simply host social events as most First Ladies had done, she became an important force in American life. Bess Truman returned to the former practice, but since Jacqueline Kennedy every First Lady has become known for a cause that she embraced.

Americans, for example, will always owe a debt of gratitude to Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, who famously led a campaign to remove many of the billboards that obscured motorists’ views of the landscape. Barbara Bush certainly fits into the category of activist First Ladies. Immediately upon the inauguration of her husband, she announced that she would make family literacy her cause. Throughout her years in the White House, she lent her talents to groups promoting that goal, and soon established the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Eventually, this organization gained oversight of 1,500 literacy groups across the nation. Soon, she also took up the cause of the upkeep of the White House itself. After working with a group called the White House Historical Association for a period of time, she helped organize the White House Endowment Trust. This group has raised millions of dollars for preserving and renovating the Executive Mansion.

Her years as the First Lady ended with her husband’s loss in the election of 1992, but Barbara Bush continued to work for causes that she believed in. One of those involved the campaigns of two of her sons to secure the Republican nomination for president. She helped her son George win in 2000, but proved less successful with Jeb in 2016. Some have suggested that this resulted from the fact that her political views—notably that the stand of politicians on issues like abortion and homosexuality were private matters—put her at odds with the mainstream of the Republican Party. But even though Americans of both political stripes may not have agreed with her, they always admired her for her candor and her basic sense of decency.

I would suggest that years from now, Americans will still regard her quite favorably.

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1 Comment

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    Barry E Stern

    I was privileged to serve the Bush 41 administration as deputy assistant secretary for Vocational and Adult Education. During his presidency Barbara Bush hosted a White House reception for the nation’s state directors of adult education. No one remembered such a gesture in a previous administration. Though Mrs. Bush scrupulously avoided getting involved in policy, she likely had some influence in the federal government’s dramatic increase in the adult literacy budget. I had the honor of representing her at the International Conference on Literacy that was held in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. A great lady whose efforts on behalf of the country and its readers will be missed.

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