Barbara Bush, The 1989 Newsweek Profile: 'A First Lady Who Cares'

As America's First Volunteer, Barbara Bush has had to cut back on what she loves best: the hands-on volunteer work that has given her so much satisfaction over the years. Except for occasional stolen moments like cuddling an infant at a shelter, there's little opportunity for her to get close to people she helps. In a recent interview in the family quarters of the White House, the 64-year-old First Lady discussed how she has come to terms with her new role as a symbol and sometime lobbyist for the nation's 80 million volunteers. For years, she says, "I gave hours of time. And of course, money. Now what I can do best is highlight these programs."

Literacy has become her primary cause, and it was a calculated choice. The common wisdom that her son Neil's learning disability was the source of her interest is "a myth," she says. In 1979, when her husband was first running for president, Bush realized that if he won, she would have what she describes as a "golden opportunity" to advance a special issue of her own. She spent that summer jogging—"That was many years ago," she jokes—and mulling over possibilities such as pollution, unemployment, crime, drugs and especially teenage pregnancy. Some she rejected as too political, others just didn't seem right for her. She chose literacy because she realized she could discuss a broad range of social problems through that one issue. If, for example, teenage girls were encouraged to achieve in school, then, Bush believes, they would be much less likely to wind up pregnant. "The truth is," she says, "having a more literate America would help almost everything."

In the last 10 years Bush has visited more than 500 literacy programs in libraries, schools, day-care centers, housing projects and shelters. The privately funded Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, established this spring, supports reading programs around the country. Bush often urges people she meets and even her friends to get involved in tutoring programs of all kinds. She believes that one-to-one contact is the best recruitment tool for volunteers. "You get right in and you work," she says. "You see yourself feeding the hungry, nurturing the poor." That kind of involvement is very gratifying, she says, because the results are immediate.

As a lifelong volunteer, Bush has experienced those rewards firsthand. When her husband was U.N. ambassador, she worked with cancer patients at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. That experience was especially poignant; nearly two decades earlier, in 1953, Bush's daughter Robin died of leukemia in the hospital's pediatric ward just before her 4th birthday. For years she visited a Washington hospice. "I got very involved with a lot of their patients," she recalls. "Personally involved." A woman named Frances Hammond was one of her favorites. "I gained much more from Frances than Frances ever gained from me," Bush says. As Second Lady, she volunteered in shelters and soup kitchens, like Martha's Table in Washington. During the last campaign, she initiated Operation Soap—an effort to get aides and reporters to collect hotel soaps and shampoos and donate them to the homeless.

Second Lady:

Bush's friends say that she didn't seek too much publicity over the past eight years because she didn't want to embarrass the Reagan White House. Her recent trip to a thrift shop to donate old clothes, for example, might have drawn even more attention than it did if it had come amid the flap over Nancy Reagan's "borrowed" ball gowns. Says one Bush friend: "Can you imagine the questions the press would have asked had they known how much she was doing for the homeless? Reporters would have suggested she was more concerned about that issue than President Reagan himself."

Now that Bush is First Lady, publicity is part of the job. Her every action is recorded; even her bout with Graves' disease, which has affected her vision, makes headlines. Yet, despite the fishbowl, she tries for moments of intimacy. On a trip last month to Covenant House, a New York City shelter for runaways, Bush and her husband listened intently as the youngsters told often wrenching stories of life on the streets. The First Lady spent much of the visit with the 3-week-old daughter of one of the shelter's residents on her lap. Bush sees such gestures not only as a chance to be—even briefly—more than just a figurehead but also as an opportunity to teach by example. She has been photographed cuddling and kissing AIDS-infected babies and hopes that people who see those pictures will overcome their prejudices and help out, too.

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These days Bush is always very conscious of the impact of her involvement in particular issues. Although she is interested in a wide range of social problems, she picks her causes carefully. Her staff reviews the thousands of requests for help that have come into the White House since January. Some are rejected because of time problems, others because they are considered inappropriate or too controversial. This year she was invited to appear on the popular TV show Golden Girls to promote the Special Olympics, but declined because she felt it was improper for a First Lady to appear in a comedy (even though Betty Ford appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1976 and Nancy Reagan was on Diff'rent Strokes in 1983). Instead, Bush agreed to do a public-service announcement about literacy after a Kate & Allie episode dealing with that issue.

Although her parents were active in their community charities in Rye, N.Y., Bush doesn't remember them ever specifically pushing volunteerism. "I don't think anybody sat you down," she says. "We just grew up knowing that's what you did." In the 1950s and 1960s, when the Bushes were rearing their children in Texas, she worked for everything from Little League to the March of Dimes. Her own children have learned by example, as well. All of them have participated in volunteer work. Her youngest son, Marvin, 32, nearly died from an attack of colitis in 1986; since then, he has spent many hours helping others with the disease. Neil, 34, and his wife, Sharon, have worked in soup kitchens in Denver, where they live. Last December Jeb, 36, and his son, George P., 13, visited victims of the Armenian earthquake. This summer George P. is staying with his grandparents in the White House and helping out in a soup kitchen.

A realist:

Despite her many years of volunteering, Bush is realistic about the limits of community service. She knows that volunteers can't solve every social problem. "The meat of the program really is the professional," she says. "And you need money for that. You have to have the professionals who put everything in place and keep the program going and keep the volunteers coming in." As for the money, "I leave that to a lot of congressmen and a lot of senators who are out there lobbying for money." She adds, "I have never lobbied for my husband—with a few exceptions." Although she declines to discuss those exceptions, friends and her aides credit her with influencing him to campaign as the education candidate and to add funds to the budget this year for schools, volunteer programs and AIDS research. "She does let him know how she feels," an aide says. "And he listens. He trusts her instincts and he often follows them."

Barbara Bush is well aware of how hard it is for many people to find enough time to volunteer these days. But, she says, "everybody has something, whether you have time or money or know-how or space. Today you can no longer say, 'The drug problem worries me' or 'Crime worries me' or 'Illiteracy worries me.' If it worries you, then you've got to do something about it."

This story originally appeared in the July 10, 1989, issue of Newsweek, with the headline "A First Lady Who Cares."