Barbara Bush, the wife of George H. W. and mother of George W. and Jeb Bush, died last Tuesday, April 17, in her Houston home at the age of 92. As the outpouring of condolences and fond remembrance of her long life demonstrates, Barbara is beloved by an entire nation. While frequently referred to as the matriarch of the politically powerful Bush dynasty, she redefined the role of First Lady and became a celebrated figure of compassion, fortitude, and grace.
It is tempting to dwell solely on her roles as wife and mother to two presidents, but she deserves recognition in her own right as a strong and passionate woman, committed to improving the lives of Americans. As First Lady in 1989, she launched the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. She advocated for increased literacy to overcome social and economic inequality; consequently, her foundation has provided family literacy grants to millions of low-income American families.
Additionally, Bush is celebrated for breaking the presidential silence on the AIDS epidemic that destroyed countless lives during the 1980s. The stigma of the AIDS virus terrorized American society as well, which is why Bush made such a profound statement when she visited Grandma’s House, an AIDS hospice in Washington, in 1989. Her compassion for those whom society had discarded is clear in the photo of her cradling a baby infected with AIDS. To Bush, these were not pariahs, but scared people who needed love and help.
Perhaps it was her own experience with death and illness that contributed to her universal empathy. In 1953 her daughter Robin was diagnosed at the age of three with leukemia, a disease poorly understood and not openly spoken about. Bush uprooted the family to Manhattan, where she sat by her daughter’s side for months of regular bone marrow tests and blood transfusions. She remained there until Robin died seven months later.
Bush, however, overcame her own immense grief to not only raise five other children and support her husband’s political ambitions, but also to become nationally respected and loved. A force to be reckoned with, she was formidable and witty and has definitively joined the American pantheon of heroes. She believed in the power of the human connection. During her lifetime, she clearly demonstrated this by reaching out to many unfortunate Americans who required the compassion that she gave so freely.