NOT surprisingly, Barbara Bush talks about literacy from the vantage point of her rich family life. One reason for the high illiteracy rate in the United States, she suggests, is a failure of parents to parent. The fact that so many mothers work outside the home creates a conflict, the First Lady admits, but that is a ``fact of life'' to be dealt with.
``Our own daughter is going to work full-time,'' Mrs. Bush tells reporters. ``She's going to have a struggle. But she's still going to have to sit with her arm around her children and read to them and listen to them and care about them.''
Listening. Mrs. Bush, the mother of five and grandmother of 11, emphasizes the point.
``I think a lot of our problems are because people don't listen to our children. And it's not always easy - they're not always so brilliant that you want to spend hours with them, but it's very important to listen,'' she says.
For years Mrs. Bush has worked to eradicate illiteracy, sitting on the boards of such groups as Reading is Fundamental and participating in literacy-promotion events. Soon she will establish a private, grant-awarding foundation called the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.
In her work in the last year or two, she says, ``everything came back to family.'' Visiting Head Start projects, she found that more than half of the mothers were functionally illiterate. ``So what chance did the little kid have, if the mother couldn't encourage them to read or couldn't help them?'' Welfare mothers, she says, could take classes or receive job training while their children were in Head Start.
Mrs. Bush also blames the school system for overburdening teachers. ``We expect our teachers to be mother and father and church - to teach our children morals and some things that maybe we should be doing ourselves,'' she says.
Gracious, relaxed, informal, Mrs. Bush easily parries questions from a small group of journalists in the handsome west sitting room in the White House second-floor family residence. Her dog Millie, a springer spaniel, sits contentedly at her side, tail wagging when Mrs. Bush tells her guests that puppies may be on the way.
``I asked George how he's going to feel about no Camp David for six weeks and he said, `What do you mean?' and I said, `Well, the dog can't go,''' Mrs. Bush relates. ``I think he'll figure a way,'' she adds with a quick smile.
No stranger to beautiful houses, Mrs. Bush nonetheless indicates she is smitten by her 29th home. ``It's so much more beautiful than I thought,'' she says enthusiastically. ``The food is the most beautiful food you've every laid your eyes on. Today, I had lunch off of [Woodrow] Wilson's plates, sometimes I have lunch off of Lincoln's plates....
``Looking at the Monet over your head or the C'ezanne over there ... I'm surprised by the enormous beauty and I owe Nancy Reagan enormous thanks ... for a lot of the beauty here. Everything glistens because she really put her mind to it.''
When it comes to political opinions, Mrs. Bush routinely defers to her husband. But she politely tolerates a few ``news'' queries. Does she have any question about John Tower's character or ability to be secretary of defense?
``Am I loyal to John Tower? - you bet I am,'' she responds without hesitation. ``He's a wonderful man and probably as qualified as anybody in the country for secretary of defense.''
WHAT about Oliver North? ``I think he's innocent until proven guilty,'' she says tersely.
As they begin their tenure at the White House, the Bushes have set a style that contrasts markedly with the Reagan years. The resplendent home on Pennsylvania Avenue will be open to gaggles of grandchildren and the countless friends and acquaintances the Bushes have cultivated over many years of public life.
On a typical evening at home, says Mrs. Bush, the President comes home about 6 p.m. They both do some work before dinner and often one of the children or friends or staff are over. ``We like people and [George] likes to share,'' Mrs. Bush says. The pair have dinner alone and work for a while before walking the dog.
But the Bushes are hardly homebodies. Their often spontaneous visits to local restaurants to dine with friends have added to the concerns of the Secret Service. And Mrs. Bush intends to be out and about.
``I'm going to go out so much that you're going to be saying, `Ho-hum, there's Mrs. Bush, out again,''' she says. ``I'm going to go to museums, I'm going to walk, I'm going to go out with friends. I'm just going to do things ... I think it's very important you get out.''
``Out'' also means her activities on behalf of a variety of causes - from promoting literacy to visiting shelters for the homeless. Asked what she would like to be remembered for after four or eight years in the White House, Mrs. Bush says, ``I hope people will say `She cared; she worked hard for lots of causes.''' But her sense of a ``cause,'' she indicates, echoes her husband's approach of encouraging people to be ``one of those thousand points of light.''
``I get a lot of letters saying `I want to help with your program,''' Mrs. Bush explains. But her response these days is to say, ``If you want to get on my program, if you'll just go out and help the neighbor who needs help, you'll be on my program.''
Another contrast with the Reagans is church-going. Episcopalians, the Bushes often attend St. John's Church near the White House. But they also make it a point to visit other churches.
Religion is something the Bushes prefer not to talk about publicly. But, when asked how important it is in her life, Mrs. Bush responds that all her children went to Sunday School and ``it's automatic.''
``Maybe that isn't good, but it's a part of our life,'' she remarks. ``We pray, we love God, they're all intermixed. I couldn't divide my family and my religion.''
AFTER the interview Mrs. Bush gives the reporters a tour of the family residence. ``We eat by candlelight,'' she comments as the group admires the dining room. ``Isn't it beautiful]''
She shows off the Yellow Room, where heads of state are entertained (with a view of the South Lawn and the Jefferson Memorial in the distance), the Queen's bedroom, the grandchildren's bedroom, a secret stairway to the third floor, and the Lincoln bedroom, which contains the only dated and signed copy of the Gettysburg Address. ``Lincoln never slept here,'' she explains like a seasoned tour guide.
There are unlikely to be many changes, Mrs. Bush indicates. The biggest one is conversion of the Monroe room into an ``office for George.'' It once served as the office for 14th US President Franklin Pierce, Barbara Pierce Bush's great-great-great uncle.
So far, the nation's First Lady is getting rave reviews for her unpretentiousness, symbolized by her white hair and fake pearls. How does she account for her popularity?
``I think people don't feel threatened by me,'' she replies. ``Nobody is going to hold me up to their wife or their husband, or I think people know I'm fair and I like children and I adore my husband. ... I think people think it's nice to think you really love your husband and your children and your dog.''
``I don't even mind cats,'' she adds wrily.
THE FIRST LADY ON OTHER FIRST LADIES
Barbara Bush has something kindly to say about virtually all previous First Ladies. She likes Pat Nixon ``very much'' and also Betty Ford.
Ladybird Johnson? ``It's hard to say `favorite,' but she certainly was,'' says Mrs. Bush. ``Ladybird was here when we came to Congress and Ladybird brought us all upstairs.''
Mrs. Bush has ``enormous respect for Nancy Reagan'' and is grateful to her for beautifying the White House. Nancy left ``a very nice note and a lovely orchid'' for her successor.
Eleanor Roosevelt apparently was too much an activist to suit Barbara Bush. ``I hope I would never get into as much political stuff as Eleanor did, but she was gutsy....'' says today's First Lady.
Recently the press quoted Mrs. Bush as saying that she grew up in a household that ``really detested'' Mrs. Roosevelt. The press, she says, did not tell the end of the story: Mrs. Bush's mother, who ``never changed her mind once,'' changed her opinion of Mrs. Roosevelt after attending a reception in her honor.
``Now don't write that up unless you put the last part in because her grandchildren are friends of mine,'' Mrs. Bush cautions reporters, ``and I've been suffering over that [story].''