Barbara Bush, First Lady and Literacy Champion, Took A Bold Approach To The AIDS Epidemic

“The image of the First Lady of the United States holding to her chest a dying child really reworked the entire notion of AIDS for many people around the country.”

By Rhonda Fanning, Andrew Schneider, & Jen RiceApril 18, 2018 11:54 am, , , , ,

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, you could be fired if your employer discovered you’d done something like volunteering to work with AIDS patients. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome was, at the time, considered a death sentence, saddled with the stigma as a disease spread by drug users and gay men.

“The Reagan administration, frankly, had done basically nothing, not only to remedy the problem and the health crisis, but to even address it,” says Jeffrey Engel, the director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, and the author of several books including “When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War.”

Many Americans were afraid that just touching someone with AIDS could be deadly, despite assurances from public health officials that that just wasn’t true.

Shortly after her husband’s inauguration, Barbara Bush did something remarkable.

“In the first months of her being in the White House,” Engel says, “Barbara Bush went to essentially a hospice where children and babies who had contracted HIV and AIDS were oftentimes left and abandoned by their parents, and left simply to pass away. And Barbara Bush went, and not only coddled some of the babies, not only kissed some of the babies, not only took care of some of the children and gave them just genuine human warmth, but more importantly she allowed herself to be videoed and photographed doing that. The image of the First Lady of the United States holding to her chest a dying child really reworked the entire notion of AIDS for many people around the country.”

The First Lady visited the hospice more than once. Engel says her visits managed to move the conversation forward about AIDS in the United States.

“I think of all the stories about Barbara Bush that I’ve ever heard and I ever researched, this is the one that touches me the most,” Engel says. “It really was a genuine positive that a First Lady could do for the entire country.”

Mrs. Bush visits patients at Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

From Houston Public Media:

Former First Lady Barbara Bush – wife of President George H.W. Bush and mother of President George W. Bush – has died at her home in Houston. She was 92.

Bush was her husband’s indispensable partner. The couple made their political debut virtually at the same time, when George Bush ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1964.

From a 1964 “George Bush for Senate” commercial: “Both George and Barbara Bush campaign hard during the week. On Sunday, however, they try to be with their children after church services at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, where Barbara teaches Sunday school.”

Her work as an educator carried over into public life. She used her platform as first lady to combat illiteracy. Julie Baker Finck, president of the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, says Mrs. Bush’s advocacy changed the conversation about the issue.

“People know the name Barbara Bush,” says Finck. “They have the utmost respect for the name Barbara Bush. And I won’t discount the fact that her name and her legacy has been what has brought people together.”

Bush strove to avoid controversy. But in the spring of 1990, she found herself in a battle on the front page of The New York Times. Wellesley College invited the first lady to speak at their commencement. Students at the women’s college protested, demanding a speaker whose achievements were independent from her husband’s.

“Now I know your first choice today was Alice Walker, known for “The Color Purple.” Instead you got me, known for the color of my hair,” Bush said in her commencement address.

The first lady weathered the storm and, in the end, delivered a speech that would become famous. “Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse,” she said, “and I wish him well.”

In between Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush brought her own priorities to the job of first lady.

“It’s not really a job. It’s just sort of an expectation,” says Jean Becker, who served as Bush’s deputy press secretary during her White House years.

Becker, who has been the elder President Bush’s chief of staff since 1994, says Barbara Bush navigated the expectation with discipline and grace. By putting her family first, and because of her refusal to color her hair, Barbara Bush was often called America’s grandmother. She didn’t love the title, but she earned it, especially during the Gulf War.

“She decided she would travel all around visiting military bases, where a lot of troops had been deployed,” Becker says. “And I hate to tell her, she was America’s grandmother. Because, oh my gosh, she spent hours hugging wives and husbands and children. It was wonderful.”

The future first lady was born Barbara Pierce in 1925. She grew up in Rye, New York, a suburb of New York City. She met her future husband at a dance when she was 16, and the two quickly fell in love. Their marriage would span 73 years, longer than any other presidential couple in history.

Her third son, Neil Bush, believes that her greatest legacy will be the love she shared with her husband. “She and my dad both set a great example for others,” he says. “How to be loving and committed husband and wife towards one another. And people, you know, whether they knew it or not, they were being kind of led in a direction that was really positive for family.”

George and Barbara Bush had six children. Their daughter Robin died of leukemia at age three. In addition to Neil Bush, their surviving children include their sons George W., Jeb, and Marvin, and their daughter Dorothy. Barbara Bush is only the second woman in American history to be both the wife and the mother of presidents. The first was Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams and mother of John Quincy Adams.

First Ladies, photographed on May 11, 1994. Photo by Barbara Kinney, The White House.