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Maybe it's fear of flying

[Illustrations by Eric Carle from The Very Hungry Caterpillar]


© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 23, 2001

Some have viewed President Bush's loyalty to the children's book The Very Hungry Caterpillar as a sort of political parable. Could it be time for him to get past the cocoon and soar a bit?

Anyone who has ever read a bedtime story to a child knows that there is no such thing as reading it once. Many is the household where Goodnight, Moon is delivered with the frequency of baseballs from a pitching machine. Usually, it's the child who wants to hear it again.

President Bush has reversed the natural order. He won't stop reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

He did it through his decadelong presidential campaign, regaling unsuspecting grade schoolers from New Hampshire to Washington state with the story of the caterpillar who eats like former President Clinton only to turn into a beautiful butterfly.

Bush never touched Green Eggs and Ham. He never ventured Where the Wild Things Are. He stayed on message, turning Eric Carle's 1969 classic into a virtual plank of his platform.

While the president compromised on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and stem cell research, his determination to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar has not wavered.

[Photo: AP 199]
Back when he was governor of Texas, George W. Bush was reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar to schoolchildren. When he read the book to Mrs. Cruz’s first-grade class at Jollyville Elementary School in Round Rock, Texas, it was far from his first performance. As president, last week at Griegos Elementary in Albuquerque, N.M., he was still trailing the insatiable larva.

Last week in Albuquerque he was at it again.

With Cabinet members and congresspeople in tow, he descended on Griegos Elementary, two-thirds of whose 300 students receive free or reduced-price lunches. As if they didn't have enough to deal with already.

The first day of school and now this.

The Associated Press distributed a photo of the president reading to Gloria Schatzinger's second-grade class. The children have a glassy-eyed look, as though they've just been darted with tranquilizers. This is odd because Bush has just gotten to the part where the caterpillar eats his way through two pears, which is still pretty early in the book.

One girl interrupted the president to inform him that her grandmother lives in California. Apparently she felt Bush needed to know that more than she needed to hear what the caterpillar ate Tuesday.

We asked Griego's principal, Eddie Lucero, about this, but he insisted the president is a riveting reader and the children were simply distracted by the cameras flashing around them. His students, he said proudly, achieve at levels well beyond schools whose students come from equally poor families.

No wonder they're bored. They're smart enough to remember what comes next:

"On Wednesday he ate through three plums, but he was still hungry."

Let's be clear, The Very Hungry Caterpillar in all its brevity occupies a place in the children's book hall of fame; 14-million copies have been sold in 30 languages. But, hey, it's no Charlotte's Web. Caterpillar is a book that many a 4-year-old has sucked dry of meaning before turning a ravening eye toward meatier texts.

So, if kids can move on with their lives, what's holding Bush back?

There's a history between Dub and the grub that dates back to when Bush was the Texas Gub.

In 1999, Pizza Hut, which was conducting a nationwide literacy campaign, asked the 50 governors what were their "favorite childhood books." Of the seven Bush listed, four of them were published many years after we presume he had graduated to more adult-themed picture books.

The press clucked about this for weeks. Everyone considered it a big gotcha, proof that Bush had character issues just like Gore, who claimed he inspired his favorite book, Stendahl's early 19th-century novel The Red and the Black.

The question persists, though, just why does Bush so favor this slender tale?

Critics and pundits have advanced various theories.

Anthony Lane, book critic for the New Yorker magazine, saw the book as "a matchless parable for the entrepreneurial right."

"The caterpillar, far from being punished for his indulgence, suffers no more than a mild stomach ache before being transformed into a butterfly," he wrote in October of last year. Conservative capitalists "are thus assured of nothing more than mildly discomforting taxation before they attain the bliss of their first billion."

Not bad, but maybe a self-improvement model would be more apt than a purely economic one. After all, doesn't the caterpillar's Saturday night binge of "one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon" bear an uncanny resemblance to the 40th birthday party bender that led Bush to forswear all alcohol?

"The next day was Sunday again. The caterpillar ate through one nice green leaf, and after that he felt much better."

Addiction and rehabilitation. Caterpillar quits his gourmandizing ways and emerges as a natty-looking butterfly. Party boy quits boozing and becomes president.

Of course, these are just theories. The truly gritty members of Bush's young audiences still have some unanswered questions.

"How'd that happen?" a child asked Bush two years ago in New Hampshire as he turned the last page.

"That's just what happens in life," he answered.

Ah, genetics. It explains so much.

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