TORONTO — The world leaders were talking about agricultural subsidies, Third World debts and President Reagan's arms control initiative.
But for the spouses at this eighth economic summit, it was all "girls' talk," said the same First Lady, Nancy Reagan, who had boned up on Russian history for the last summit.
Mrs. Reagan made the comment Monday as she debarked along with four other first ladies from a one-hour cruise of the Toronto harbor.
Denis Thatcher, husband of the British prime minister, and Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the French head of state, chose to remain in their home countries. So for Mrs. Reagan, Naoko Takeshita of Japan, Anna Maria De Mita of Italy, Hannelore Kohl of West Germany and Mila Mulroney, wife of the Canadian prime minister and the summit's official hostess, the activities were so structured and seemingly superficial that reporters were left focusing primarily on what the women wore.
(For the record, Mrs. Reagan donned a jaunty white, nautical-type suit for her harbor cruise. She wore navy-and-white accessories.)
The one exception was the 20-minute Canadian literacy campaign program Monday afternoon, held in a tent next to the waterfront hotel where the first ladies had lunch.
"Stories are wonderful ways to unite us," John O'Leary, the director of the literacy program at Ontario's Frontier College, told the 150 students from downtown Toronto schools who had been released from classes for the occasion. Five of the children, chosen from schools with foreign language "heritage" programs, sat beside the women, conversing with them in their respective languages.
The five schoolchildren and Mila Mulroney read a popular Canadian children's tale, "Can You Catch Josephine?" by Stephane Poulin, about a boy named Daniel and a cat named Josephine.
Gina Liu, an 8-year-old student from Lord Lansdowne School in Toronto, asked Mrs. Reagan what kind of book she most likes to read.
"I read every kind of book," the First Lady replied. "I read a lot. My husband reads a lot. Our children read a lot."
Brightening visibly, Mrs. Reagan continued by recalling "going to pick up my daughter, my eldest child, and she'd be sitting there reading a book instead of out playing."
That habit has continued throughout her children's lives, Mrs. Reagan said. "And we're happy, because if you read, if you have a book, you'll never be lonely. You'll always have a friend."
Waving flags from the summit countries and cheering like sports fans, the children received T-shirts bearing the message "Avoid Extinction: Read."
The presence of so many schoolchildren presumably consigned the literacy event to the traditional first ladies' purview. The same could be said of their tour of an art gallery Monday evening, and certainly of their glittery fashion show Sunday night.
"Something to do while the men were economicking" was how one White House aide described the fashion show portion of the agenda, held in a cavernous hall at the Royal Ontario Museum.
(For the record, Mrs. Reagan wore a red, black and white chiffon dress by Galanos, one of her favorite designers.)
Mrs. Reagan's arrival at the museum was marked with a moment of near-drama and a threatened collision with the protocol of summit seniority.
According to this well-established etiquette, Mrs. Reagan, as the wife of the longest officeholder in attendance, should have been the last to arrive. But when her six-vehicle motorcade, preceded by a phalanx of motorcycles, inched up in front of the museum at 5:23 p.m., neither the German nor the Japanese first lady had yet arrived.
White House aides hastily radioed Mrs. Reagan's entourage and the cars, moving at a funereal pace, made a quick detour past the front of the museum.
"We wanted to see the college," Mrs. Reagan, ever the diplomat, said later when asked to explain the sudden round-the-block jaunt. The museum is near the University of Toronto.
At the show, Mrs. Reagan displayed particular enthusiasm for a collection of children's evening wear. She seemed impressed by a sweeping, full-length coat of white Canadian mink, but was observed to raise her eyebrows at a heavy gold lame evening gown and cape. A collection of bold men's evening clothes, including metal suspenders and a see-through shirt, evoked cries of amazement from Helena Shultz, wife of U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz.
Mrs. Reagan, seated between Hannelore Kohl and Mila Mulroney, chatted comfortably with both throughout the program. At one point, ripples of applause for Mrs. Reagan threatened to interrupt the fashion show when she reached onto the runway to rescue and return a rhinestone earring a model had dropped. The model and the First Lady traded smiles.