The White House, President George W. Bush Click to print this document

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 26, 2001

President's Remarks at 'Celebration of Reading' Event
The Wortham Theatre Center
Houston, Texas

7:04 P.M. EDT

MRS. BARBARA BUSH: Welcome to this year's Celebration of Reading. I can hardly believe it, but this is our seventh year. We see so many familiar faces coming from year to year that we're beginning to think that you even maybe enjoy the evening, or that you're gluttons for punishment. (Laughter.) But we are honored and blessed by your support, and thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Once again, you have managed to outdo yourselves. Incredibly, we will raise more than $2 million tonight, which -- (applause) -- which means we can help more people read and build better lives for their families. That's what tonight is all about. So, thank you for taking the time out of your busy lives to be with us.

FORMER PRESIDENT BUSH: This is indeed a banner -- a banner year for Barbara's foundation. But if I may say so, it's been a special year for the Bush family. (Applause.) As Barbara noted, we have so many friends here, particularly Texas friends, that we would be remiss if we did not take this opportunity to thank all of you for your good wishes on the election of the 43rd President of the United States. (Applause.)

You know, it is impossible to describe how 43's election has impacted our lives. (Laughter.) Fortunately, I don't even have to try to explain it. And somehow, some of the changes have been captured on video. And we thought we would give you a glimpse of what life is like for us today.

(A video is shown.) (Applause.)

MRS. BARBARA BUSH: Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States and Mrs. Laura Bush. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all very much. Thank you very much. Laura and I are really glad to be back in Texas. (Laughter.) I didn't realize, Dad, until I saw that video, how different your life has been since I'm the President and you're not. (Laughter.) Sounds like it's been pretty rough. And perhaps you and I should sit down and have a discussion, talk about it. Let me think: I have an opening the 27th of September. (Laughter.)

We have some other family issues to discuss, like where to put my presidential library. (Laughter.) I've decided not to go through the hassle of raising money. And so, you know my dad's library? We're just going to add, "And Son." (Laughter and applause.) As you can already tell, lately my dad has been calling me "43." I call him "41." It's kind of shorthand we have in our family. And we have a nickname for mother as well. To show you where she stands in the power structure of this family, we call her "Number One." (Laughter and applause.)

And so I'm going to turn the stage back to Number One, and then close the program with some remarks of my own. It's really great to be back in Houston, and to return bearing the proudest title ever been given to me: son of Barbara and George Bush. (Applause.)

MRS. BARBARA BUSH: Well, I want to thank the President and our fabulous First Lady for taking the time to be here. It's hard to really judge what their loyal support to our little event has meant to its success. And, needless to say, speaking as a literacy advocate and a mother, I think they're doing a fantastic job in Washington, D.C. (Applause.)

I also want to thank our extraordinary group of authors for joining us tonight to share their remarkable writing talents. Tonight, we're pleased to announce the winners of our 11th National Grant Competition, which you will find listed in your program along with three new grant winners from Texas.

As many of you know, over the past six years our celebration has been funding the development of a network of strong family literacy programs across the state through the new Texas Fund For Family Literacy, and the First Lady's Family Literacy Initiative For Texas. Nearly $1 million awarded to 50 family literacy programs in 41 different cities so far.

This initiative is still going strong and is headed by its founder, America's superb First Lady, Laura Bush. As in past years, we will be splitting the proceeds from tonight right down the middle: 50 percent for Texas and 50 percent for the rest of the country. Sounds kind of fair. (Laughter and applause.)

We're pleased to have the U.S. Secretary of Education here with us tonight, our superb former Superintendent of the Houston Independent School District. A strong supporter of family literacy and our very dear friend, Secretary of Education Rod Paige. (Applause.)

The Secretary has told me that I can announce tonight that he plans to highlight adult and family literacy in the department, and bring it to new prominence. And I cannot think of a better note of encouragement to start our program.

* * * * *

MRS. BARBARA BUSH: As many of you know, we were originally scheduled to have John Major, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, and our very dear friend, at the celebration last year. We were very sad when an emergency back surgery forced him to change his plans.

However, we had no intention of letting him off the hook. So we're delighted that he is here with us tonight to read from his wonderfully engaging autobiography. It's a fabulous book, not only because it provides fresh insight into historic events, but it is also a great story.

Please join me in welcoming the Right Honorable John Major. (Applause.)

FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF BRITAIN JOHN MAJOR: As Barbara said, I should have been with you last year, but I was having surgery on my back. It was one of those rare occasions when a politician had a knife in his back and it did him good. (Laughter.) But I am, in any event, delighted to be here for George and Barbara Bush, two of the loveliest people that I know. These readings are about my life. My father was brought up in Pennsylvania. As a boy, he joined a fife and drum band and twice paraded in front of President Grover Cleveland. By the age of eight, he taught himself acrobatics, and was the top of a four-man pyramid.

As a teenager, he performed on the flying trapeze without a safety net in order to attract a larger crowd and earn a bigger fee. When I was born, my father was in his sixties, and my mother was surprised. (Laughter.) I only remember him as a stern, but kind old man.

My mother was a Peter Pan figure with a gift for attracting lame ducks. I remember sitting at the table, about to eat my lunch, when a cold and hungry gypsy knocked at the door. He was invited in, and my mother served him my meal, leaving me hungry. Afterward, she had the grace not to ask me to do the washing up. She didn't consider that fair; but being superstitious, nor did she ask the gypsy to do it.

Books introduced me to a world I had never known and to people I'd never meet. To me, they were an escape and an education. Some became lifelong friends. "Fame Is Despair." "A Horseman Riding By." "How Green Was My Valley." "Trollope," "Phineas Finn," and "Phineas Redux" were never far from hand. Biographies and histories joined Agatha Christie, Neville Carters, Thomas Costain and many more. I love Jane Austen and Dickens.

Such books became cherished friends, companions and tutors; the true furniture of the mind. In my late teens, I read Kafka and Voltaire, Spinosa on ethics and Aristotle on politics. I dipped into Colette and Hardy. And all those books remain on my shelves today.

When I was 12, my father's business failed, and he lost all that he owned. Our family moved from comfortable circumstances to an old victorian house in Brixton, South London, where we lived in an apartment of two rooms for the five of us, plus of course Butch, the dog. We shared a cooker on the landing. There was no bathroom. We washed at the sink or in a tub.

That house was home to a rich collection of characters. On the floor below us were three Irish boys, one of whom invited my sister to run away with him. (Laughter.) Another actually proposed to her one morning as she left for work, but she wasn't really listening; a convenient gift that she retains to this day. (Laughter.)

Another tenant was a middle-aged cat burglar. He lived with a girl who used to walk around the house in her underwear. Something of a novelty in the 1950s, but one that added pleasurably to my education. (Laughter.) The cat burglar occasionally asked me to place his bets on race horses with a book maker who operated illegally in the tunnel of the local railway station. Once he offered me half a crown to check if there were any policemen around before he went out of the house. I agreed to scout with him, but high-mindedly refused to take the money. It probably wasn't his anyway.

The indignity of our situation affected my parents deeply as they lived through setback and disaster. They were never crabby or miserable, but fought adversity in their own way, laughing joyfully at minor triumphs, outwardly optimistic, and forever hoping for a future that to them would never come. Too proud, too stiff to acknowledge ill fortune. My father saw his troubles, his health, his blindness, as temporary setbacks, from which he would somehow emerge triumphant.

As for my mother, if I found her with wet eyes often enough, I never found her without hope. If the rain came through the ceiling, well, the water would be mopped up. If the bills piled up, well, they'd be paid eventually. If their health worsened, well, it would surely improve. There was always tomorrow, full of wonderful possibilities. Especially, they thought, for me. I was to achieve what they had not. I was to put right what was wrong. My mother, at least, was confident of that.

At the age of 13, I visited the House of Commons for the first time and I fell in love with it. From that day, my ambition to enter Parliament never wavered, though it often enough seemed to be an impossible dream.

At 16, I found a job, and I went out into the world as my father retreated from it. And I can see him now: Thick, over-long grey hair swept back. Stern features, shirt and Fair Isle sweater under a tweed jacket, stepping out as fast as he could without hesitation, using his walking stick to lever himself upright.

He didn't stroll, he marched. Near blind he may have been, but he was devoid of self-pity. He taught me so much. Not to be deterred by obstacles. Not to give in to fate. For him, triumph and disaster were passing moments to be enjoyed or to be endured. When they had gone, he moved on without regret. All this, he taught me.

A lifetime in politics brought many memorable moments. One day in the mid-1995s, Boris Yeltsin came to stay at Checkers. Checkers is the British Prime Minister's Camp David. A beautiful historic house set in hundreds of acres of beautiful rolling countryside.

We had had some lengthy meetings, and I felt like some fresh air. And I said to Boris: How do you feel, Boris, about a walk? He agreed. But he went upstairs to change and he came down a few moments later in an electric blue track suit and sneakers. (Laughter.) And off we went -- myself, Boris, Naina Yeltsin, my wife, Norma; 40 or 50 diplomats. (Laughter.) Sixty or seventy protection officers. The sort of everyday walk for heads of government.

And we hadn't gone very far -- about 300 yards -- when it became apparent even to the most casual observer that Boris Yeltsin was not one of the great walkers of our age. (Laughter.) We walked for a while, and we stood on the prow of a hill, overlooking some sleepy English villages. And I said to him, Boris, you have three choices: We can retread our steps all over the fields and walk back to Checkers. He said, "Baahh." We can climb into those cars down there, Boris, and be driven back. "Bbbhhh."

Over there, Boris, I said, in the distance, in that village, you can see the Bernard Arms, Boris. An old-fashioned English pub. (Laughter.) Where we can get some refreshment. And it was at that moment that for the first time, Western intelligence learned that President Yeltsin had a few words of English: "Gins and tonic," he said. "Gins and tonic." (Laughter and applause.)

And off we set to the pub. The long crocodile followed behind us, and we arrived at the pub, and it was shut. (Laughter.) Boris Yeltsin's aids were not at all happy. Their president was not used to being shut out of anything, let alone an English pub. And there, in the middle of this beautiful summer day in the English countryside, their aides went 'round, banging on the door. "Open up," they yelled. "It's the President of Russia." "Oh, yes," said a voice from inside, "and I'm the Kaiser." (Laughter.)

Of course, in politics, sometimes you lose, as well as win. On the day after my election defeat in 1997, the telephone rang. It was George Bush. I know what losing's like, he said. I've been there. And he went on, warmly issuing invitations. Come to Kennebunkport, bring the children. The bluefish are biting. Barbara sends her love.

It was a very cheerful and uplifting call, very George. He was the first to call me on the day I became Prime Minister, and the first to call me on the day I ceased to be Prime Minister. The weather was beautiful, as the new Labor government took up office. And at our home in Cambridge here, Norma and I considered the future.

On Sunday, we had a buffet lunch for some of our closest friends. It was a very jolly wake. There was no shifting of eyes, no mumbled sorries from our guests. There were hugs, and a few tears, and much cheerfulness. We raided my best wines and my guests sank the lot. (Laughter.) Lunch spread into supper, as the party rolled on. The whole weekend was a mental windbreak. I went to bed on Sunday night thinking not of what had been, but of what was yet to come.

Thank you. (Applause.)

MRS. LAURA BUSH: Before I introduce my husband, I want to congratulate Barbara Bush once again for such a really fabulous evening. (Applause.) I also want to thank the writers for inspiring and entertaining us. Your readings were terrific. And I want to thank everybody else here for coming tonight and for supporting literacy -- 50 percent for Texas and 50 percent for the rest of the country. (Laughter and applause.)

You know the old saying that something happening once can be a fluke, two times makes it a coincidence, three times makes it a habit, but seven straight years of the Celebration of Reading makes it a wonderful tradition. I hope this evening's emphasis on literacy inspires more Texans and Americans of all ages to read.

And, needless to say, I'm very proud of the efforts of the next speaker to help make sure that every child is educated. If we follow his lead, we'll certainly become a nation of readers.

Ladies and gentlemen, my husband, the President of the United States, George Bush. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you. Thank you, Laura. One again, thank you all for that warm welcome. I know all of you join me in thanking the authors for being here tonight. The readings were fantastic, and we appreciate it. (Applause.)

You've certainly set a high standard for a little reading I intend to do tonight. (Laughter.) Now, some people think my mom took up the cause of literacy -- (laughter) -- out of a sense of guilt over my own upbringing. (Laughter.) That's one reason why she was so happy I married a teacher.

The truth is, I guess I could have paid a little closer attention when I was in English class, but it all worked out okay. (Laughter.) I'm gainfully employed. (Laughter.) And I even have a new book out. And I brought along a copy. Right here it is. I didn't actually write all of this, but I did inspire it. (Laughter.) Some guy put together a collection of my wit and wisdom. (Laughter.) Or, as he calls it, my accidental wit and wisdom.

It's not exactly a world transformed, but I'm kind of proud that my words are already in book form. (Laughter.) And I thought tonight I would share a few quotable passages with you. (Laughter.) It's kind of like thoughts of Chairman Mao. (Laughter.) Only with laughs and not in Chinese. (Laughter.)

Here's one. And I actually said this. (Laughter.) "I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully." (Laughter.) Now, that makes you stop and think. (Laughter.) Anyone can give you a coherent sentence, but something like this takes you to an entirely new dimension. (Laughter.)

Here's another. "I understand small business growth. I was one." (Laughter.) My, do I love great literature. I said this up in New Hampshire. "I appreciate preservation. It's what you've got to do when you run for President." (Laughter.) "You've got to preserve."

You know, I really don't have the slightest idea what I was talking about there. (Laughter and applause.) You know, a lot of times on the campaign, they asked me about economics and I actually said this. "More and more of our imports come from overseas." (Laughter.) Now, most people would say this when they're talking about the economy. We ought to make the pie bigger. (Laughter.) However, I said this. (Laughter.) "We ought to make the pie higher." (Laughter.) It is a very complicated economic point I was making then. (Laughter.) But believe me -- believe me, what this country needs is taller pie. (Laughter and applause.)

And how about this for a foreign policy vision? "When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world. And we knew exactly who the they were." (Laughter.) "It was us versus them." (Laughter.) "And it was clear who the them was." (Laughter.) "Today we're not so sure who the they are" -- (laughter) -- "but we know they're there." (Laughter and applause.)

John Ashcroft, by the way, attributes the way I talk to my religious fervor. In fact, the first time we met, he thought I was talking in tongues. (Laughter.) Then there is my famous statement. "Rarely is the questioned asked, is our children learning?" (Laughter.) Let's analyze that sentence for a moment. (Laughter.) If you're a stickler, you probably think the singular verb "is" should have been the plural "are." But if you read it closely, you'll see that I'm using the intransitive plural subjective tense. (Laughter.) And so the word "is" are correct. (Laughter and applause.)

Now, ladies and gentlemen, you have to admit, in my sentences, I go where no man has gone before. (Laughter.) But the way I see it is, I am a boon to the English language. I've coined new words, like "misunderestimate" -- (laughter) -- and "Hispanically." (Laughter.) I've expanded the definition of words, themselves, using "vulcanize" when I meant "polarize" -- (laughter) -- "Grecians" when I meant "Greeks," "inebriating" when I meant "exhilarating." (Laughter.) And instead of "barriers and tariffs," I said "terriers and barrifs." (Laughter.)

We all make our contributions in the world, and I suppose mine will not be to the literary treasures of the western civilization. (Laughter.) But I do hope to contribute in my own way. And one of those ways is to bring closer the day when every child and every American learns to read. And that is why the budget I submitted to the United States Congress triples the amount of money available for reading programs all across America. (Applause.)

I'm proud of mother. She took up the cause more than a decade ago. And she didn't leave it behind in the White House. Through her efforts, and the efforts of all who have helped the Barbara Bush Foundation, so many lives have been enriched with new opportunities.

We heard Norma Vargas beautifully describe the good that has come into her life since she has found the courage to walk into that San Jose classroom to begin her first lesson. Tens of thousands more have their own stories. Stories of people finding new and better jobs, and gaining a new sense of dignity, because now they can read.

And I'm proud that Laura has her own commitment to education. She was a teacher when I met her. In her own way, she will always be a teacher. She's the best kind of teacher, too, the kind who leaves no one out, and believes in the possibilities of every person.

That's the spirit of your cause, and ours. I thank each of you for all you have contributed. It will be repaid many times over, in lives of new achievement and lives of new hope. Thank you, and God bless. (Applause.)

MRS. BARBARA BUSH: That ends another Celebration of Reading. Thank you very much for coming, and a special thank you to our authors. You were terrific, all of you. And a very special thanks to the President and the First Lady. I still can't get used to that -- (laughter) -- who have decided to forgo supper in exchange for more sleep. Maybe he'll do a little better on the language if he sleeps a little more. (Laughter.) We bid them farewell, and thank you very much. And God bless you all. (Laughter.)

END 8:44 P.M. EDT

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