Can I Just Tell You: Barbara Bush

Apr 21, 2018
Originally published on April 21, 2018 6:24 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally, as you certainly know by now, the former first lady Barbara Bush was laid to rest in Houston today. She died earlier this week at the age of 92. You've heard lots of good stories about her by now. But as a White House correspondent covering her husband's administration, I got to know her a little bit. So I hope it's OK if I mention a few of my favorites, like the time she heard that one of the local malls in the Washington, D.C., area was going to ban those folks who raised money for charity at holiday time by stationing bell ringers outside of stores. She got in the car and went up to the mall and made sure she was photographed putting a couple of bucks in the kettle.

You might have heard about how, in March 1989, soon after her husband's inauguration, she visited a local home for infants with AIDS. Now, this at a time when there were few treatments for HIV and certainly no cure. Kids with HIV were sometimes shunned at school. Landlords were refusing to rent to people with AIDS, and even some birth parents were refusing to care for babies born with AIDS, abandoning them at the hospital. She made a point of going to this home and picking up and snuggling the babies but not only that, because who doesn't like babies? She also made a point of visiting with a group of adult AIDS activists, and when she said goodbye, she gave a bear hug to one of the men, an out-loud-and-proud gay man with AIDS.

There was also the time when she heard that one of her former staffers, who was working in her son's administration, thought she wasn't being taken seriously. So Mrs. Bush made a point of having lunch with that staffer in the White House mess where they would be seen together. And just a few years ago, in 2009, she hosted a screening in Houston of Lee Daniels bracing feature film, "Precious" based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire about a young black girl who suffers horrendous abuse but manages to lift herself up by learning how to read. The novel was so graphic and upsetting that even the author wasn't sure it should be made into a film, but it was, and Mrs. Bush decided her friends needed to see it.

Now I mention all of that because much is made of Mrs. Bush's famous saltiness, the things she said. A lot of people liked it. She ended the stereotype of the seen-but-not-heard political wife. In one profile about her, I remember one man said admiringly, if she doesn't like your shoes, she's going to tell you she doesn't like your shoes. But let's be honest, sometimes the sharp instrument causes pain, such as, for example, her remarks about Hurricane Katrina evacuees staying in Houston. When I asked her about that, by the way, she told me she meant to express how proud she was of the way Houston responded to the emergency. Can I just tell you? We can focus on what people say and that is legitimate, but here I'm taking pains to focus on what she did and what she did was show us time and again how to be comfortable with who you are but also to reach out beyond the world you know.

She was a traditional lady brought up in a traditional way, but she was deeply interested in other choices, other opinions. She kept up. She kept in touch. She asked questions. In a time when the public sphere is filled with people who are quick to tell you, loudly, why they and only they are right and everybody else is wrong and why their way is the only way and why everybody who doesn't look like, agree with, or want what they want is an idiot, we could do worse than remember somebody whose quiet acts of leadership spoke volumes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.