Remarks by the First Lady at the Barbara Bush Foundation's National Celebration of Reading

October 11, 2023

[As prepared for delivery.]

Thank you, Doro, for that warm introduction, and for carrying your mom's torch forward, so that it continues to shine brightly for future generations.

And thank you all for being here tonight in support of such a worthy and important cause.

Many of you have likely heard the story of how I met my husband, Joe, and became a mom to two little boys and the wife of a U.S. Senator. But you may not have heard about what came after we said "I do."

One day, when Joe was at work down in D.C., Hunter and Beau came barging into the house holding a net, looking like they had just discovered buried treasure.

"Come look! Hurry!" they yelled, and I rushed to see what the fuss was all about. I bent down to look, and there, coiled in the net, was a snake.

I screamed, ran upstairs, and locked myself in our bedroom.

This was not part of my life plan!

When I met Joe, I was a single 24-year-old who didn't follow politics closely. I had grown used to living on my own and having my own apartment. I had no experience with boys.

And Beau and Hunter truly were sweaty, messy boys.

But through all these adjustments – the snakes and the snails, the smelly shoes, the piles of laundry, and the never-ending roughhousing – my undeniable love for Joe and the boys was the constant, the steady force of nature that helped me adapt to my new life. I learned how rushed hugs from two little boys running out the door each morning are some of the best things on Earth.

Barbara Bush knew that kind of love well. It was a love that sustained her as her 19-year-old fiancé was away at war, it was a love that kept her going when she lost her three-year-old daughter, Robin, to leukemia, and it was a love that powered her as she organized 29 moves to 17 cities while supporting her husband's career.

Yes, literacy will always be Mrs. Bush's legacy in this world.

But love – the deep, abiding, and enduring kind of love. The kind that makes you say, "I've always wanted to live in Odessa, Texas…"

The kind of love that isn't afraid to cradle a baby who is HIV positive or hug a man with AIDS, even at a time when many people believed you could catch the disease through close contact.

That love will be Mrs. Bush's gift to the world.

It's a gift I have no doubt many of you in this room have received.

Barbara's love supported two presidents, raised a family, and nourished a country.

After President Bush's memorial a few years ago, Joe and I drove to a restaurant to have lunch – just the two of us. We were both hearing the echoes of history – feeling the weight of one man's service, and the power of five living Presidents, side by side, joining in admiration and reverence.

I said to him, Joe, you have to make a decision about running.

It wasn't an easy choice of course. But in his eyes, I could see an ache for the country he loved, one that President Bush and Mrs. Bush loved as well.

The kinder, gentler country where civility was important and compromise was celebrated, where our leaders focused on uniting us instead of tearing us apart, where our institutions were valued and held sacred, where the rule of law was respected.

Democracy can be messy. After the Constitutional Convention, when asked what type of government the delegates had created, Benjamin Franklin, famously answered, "A republic, if you can keep it."

The keepers of our democracy – its defenders – are the people. And our weapons aren't arrows or spears, but education and reason.

Reading is the foundation of that education, a child's first subject, as Mrs. Bush often said.

In the wise words of a spider, or tea parties on the ceiling, reading opens up new worlds, stretches our imaginations, and expands our horizons.

When we read, we are transported to far away galaxies and we return to Earth changed, with new eyes and different perspectives. We shed certain beliefs and define others with precision.

Reading forces us to challenge our preconceived notions, question our underlying assumptions, and wrestle with uncomfortable truths.

Few skills are as crucial in a democracy that owes its endurance to engaged and informed citizens.

That's why the work all of you are doing to promote literacy is so important. Page by page, new reader by new reader, you are shaping minds and building engaged citizens, the keepers and defenders of our grand experiment in democracy.

When Mrs. Bush and President Bush wanted to get married in 1945, at 19 and 20, their parents had to write them permission slips because they were so young.

When asked why their parents were so comfortable granting permission, Mrs. Bush had a simple answer. "In wartime, the rules change. You don't wait until tomorrow to do anything."

That's the determination I want to leave you with tonight. A determination that pushes like there's no tomorrow. A determination that understands the power of literacy to transform lives, and doesn't want to waste another minute while someone can't navigate the world because they can't read. A determination that recognizes that reading is the building block of an education and that education is our most precious tool for defending our democracy.

That bright, peaceful, future we dream of, the civil, respectful America we long for, begins with reading, a child's first subject.

Thank you, all of you, for all of your work to advance the cause of literacy and make our nation a brighter, more hopeful place.

Jill Biden, Remarks by the First Lady at the Barbara Bush Foundation's National Celebration of Reading Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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