The late first lady, who died yesterday at 92, will be remembered as the only American who lived to see both her husband and son serve as president. But she was much more.
During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, Ronald Reagan never publicly uttered the word AIDS until the last year of his eight in office. It’s as though those closest to him reported that gay men, people of color and intravenous drug users were dying by the thousands and he simply said with a shake of his head, “Well, let me know when it becomes a problem.”
Once Barbara Bush became first lady, that finally stared to change. In 1989, she took a page from Princess Diana’s playbook and paid a much-publicised visit to Grandma’s House, one of the first places established for the care of HIV-infected infants. She was there for less than an hour, but her appearance alone changed the course of public understanding of the epidemic. At the time, the disease meant that anyone carrying the virus was a pariah, and ought to be quarantined until they rapidly died.
Part of the problem was the widespread and mistaken belief that anyone who came into contact with an AIDS patient could easily become infected. During that time, not only were those suffering from HIV/AIDS considered modern lepers, but even those who did volunteer work with infected patients ran the risk of being fired for their exposure. In one of the photos from her visit, Bush is seen holding a baby diagnosed with the virus. In just a few words, she helped to steer the conversation away from stigma and towards a more realistic appraisal of the disease.
“You can hug and pick up AIDS babies and people who have the HIV virus” without risking infection, she said, adding, “There is a need for compassion.”
She also lobbied her husband, George H.W. Bush, to do more to stem the epidemic, which began to turn the tide against infections that had only grown exponentially up until that time.
Some say she might have done more. We say she was the first in the White House to do anything of consequence, and she probably saved countless lives by doing so. Godspeed, Mrs. Bush, and thank you.
Last modified: April 18, 2018