When the news alert of the passing of Barbara Bush hit my phone on Tuesday, my mind immediately went back to a 1989 photo of her cradling a baby. A grandmother holding an infant isn’t shocking. But when the grandmother was the new first lady and the child was suffering from AIDS, the photo spoke volumes.
Not two months before Bush’s visit to an AIDS hospice in Washington, her husband, President George H.W. Bush, was inaugurated to succeed Ronald Reagan. The revered and loquacious Reagan was mute on the epidemic laying waste to gay men, African Americans and other vulnerable populations. Barbara Bush broke that shameful silence with a hug and her voice.
The power of that March 22, 1989, visit to a place known as Grandma’s House was captured by The Post’s Lois Romano.
Mrs. Bush cradled an infant, kissed a toddler and hugged an adult AIDS victim to demonstrate a message: “You can hug and pick up AIDS babies and people who have the HIV virus” without hurting yourself, she said. “There is a need for compassion.”
In times of fear and national distress, the American people look to the president and the White House as much for leadership as for compassion. Bush demonstrated both with that visit. Don’t underestimate the power of her message or the example she set by doing something that was so controversial at the time. She saved lives that day by bringing attention to the ignored.
The next thought I had upon learning of Bush’s death was how her passing will place in high relief the greatness of the Bush family. The commitment to public service and duty to country stand in stark contrast to the current president and his administration. My colleague Jennifer Rubin nails it in her elegy to Bush. “It never would have crossed their minds to lie (consistently!) to make themselves look good, devise mocking nicknames for other public figures, decline to do their homework on whatever the policy issue of the moment was, enrich themselves by the presidency while in office or tolerate pandemic corruption in the West Wing and Cabinet,” Rubin writes. “The grace, honor and decency Barbara Bush and her husband displayed are entirely absent in President Trump and his clan of grifters.”
Grace, honor and decency describe perfectly who Bush was and what she demonstrated to the country. I look forward to a return of those attributes to the White House. One day.
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