Barbara Bush, AIDS Activist? Oh, Gimme a Break

“When the administration censored images of the flag-draped coffins of the young men and women being killed in Iraq — purportedly to respect ‘the privacy of the families’ and not to minimize and cover up the true nature and consequences of the war — the family matriarch expressed her support for what was ultimately her son’s decision by saying on ‘Good Morning America’ on March 18, 2003, ‘Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? I mean it’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?’ Mrs. Bush is not getting any younger.

“When she eventually ceases to walk among us we will undoubtedly see photographs of her flag-draped coffin. Whatever obituaries that run will admiringly mention those wizened, dynastic loins of hers and praise her staunch refusal to color her hair or glamorize her image. But will they remember this particular statement of hers, this ‘Let them eat cake’ for the twenty-first century? Unlikely, since it received far too little play and definitely insufficient outrage when she said it. So let us promise herewith to never forget her callous disregard for other parents’ children while her own son was sending them to make the ultimate sacrifice, while asking of the rest of us little more than to promise to go shopping. Commit the quote to memory and say it whenever her name comes up. Remind others how she lacked even the bare minimum of human integrity, the most basic requirement of decency that says if you support a war, you should be willing, if not to join those nineteen-year-olds yourself, then at least, at the very least, to acknowledge that said war was actually going on. Stupid. Fucking. Cow.”


This marvelous passage is the work of David Rakoff (1964-2012), one of the funniest and brightest and best writers of his generation. His enviable sense of humor is summed up by the title of the book from which I drew the quote: “Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems.” I particularly admire the descriptive “torments” as applied to the effect of downscale sheets.

While practically the entire nation reveled in Barbara grief, obituary writer Enid Nemy of the Times did have the nerve to mention that atrocious quote of hers a little more than a third of the way through the obit. As nauseating as the following factoid is, Nemy had to acknowledge that “she was clearly a political asset. A 1999 poll found that 63 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of her and that only 3 percent had an unfavorable one.” Then again, this means that one third of the country simply had no opinion of her at all. Either that or they simply didn’t know who she was.

The Hill ran an especially obsequious story about Mrs. Bush: “U2 frontman Bono said during a conversation with former President George W. Bush on Thursday that Barbara Bush helped ease the stigma tied to AIDS, according to CNN. ‘It was so powerful when your mother, Barbara Bush, hugged that child and then hugged the man that challenged her, the older adult AIDS sufferer,’ Bono told Bush. ‘Because stigma, in the domestic AIDS problem here in the United States, stigma was a killer. You were born of an AIDS activist, sir. And you became one,’ Bono told Bush, who would work to fight AIDS in Africa during his presidency.”

What? While it’s true that Bush 43 did commit increased funding toward fighting AIDS in Africa, it’s also the case that when it came to AIDS, Bush 41 was no big improvement over the genocidal Ronald Reagan, about whom the less said, the better. The Odessa American (no, not the one in Ukraine; the one in Texas) went so far as to state, “She also reached out to many who were hurting and became one of the early voices calling for compassion for all who suffered from AIDS and HIV.”

No. NO! Mathilde Krim was one of the early voices calling for compassion for all who suffered from AIDS and HIV. Barbara Starrett was one of the early voices calling for compassion for all who suffered from AIDS and HIV. Elizabeth Taylor was one of the early voices calling for compassion for all who suffered from AIDS and HIV. During the Reagan catastrophe, I don’t recall the wife of then-Vice President Bush doing much of anything about HIV/ AIDS.

And that biking accident must have damaged Bono’s brain if he can call Bush 43 an “AIDS activist” with a straight face. NO! Peter Staley, Larry Kramer, Spencer Cox, Maxine Wolfe, and the thousands of other people in ACT UP New York, San Francisco, Paris…. They were the activists.

Bono evidently considers 1988 one of the “early years” of the epidemic, which actually began seven deadly years earlier in 1981. According to the Washington Post, 1988 was the year Mrs. Bush, as the Post puts it, “persuaded her husband to visit an AIDS clinic during his presidential campaign and acknowledge the epidemic ravaging the country.” Of course, a major reason it was ravaging the country was that, as vice president, her husband hadn’t bothered to lift a finger to stop it.

The Post continues: “Then, just two months after becoming first lady, she paid a historic visit to one of the nation’s first homes created to care for AIDS-infected infants. At the time, many Americans wrongly believed you could contract HIV simply by touching someone who had the virus. To defuse the stigma, Bush cradled an infant, kissed a toddler, and hugged an adult AIDS patient. ‘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.’

“The first lady’s hour-long visit, which generated immense national media coverage, was a courageous act of humanity that many leaders in the gay community have never forgotten. It’s been mentioned in several online tributes since she passed away on Tuesday.”

Where? A Log Cabin Republicans press release?

“Ronald Reagan’s inaction on what was sometimes referred to at the time as the ‘gay plague’ remains one of the biggest black marks on his legacy. ‘Barbara Bush broke that shameful silence with a hug and her voice,’ writes Jonathan Capehart. ‘She saved lives that day by bringing attention to the ignored.’’

Capehart is sometimes too sweet-tempered for his own good.

“In her 1994 memoir, Bush recalled her trip to the townhouse in Logan Circle. ‘I especially remember a young man who told us that he had been asked to leave his church studies when it was discovered he had AIDS,’ she wrote. ‘His parents had also disowned him, and he said he longed to be hugged again by his mother. A poor substitute, I hugged that darling young man… But what he really needed was family.’

“Tom Rosshirt, who would later be a speechwriter for Bill Clinton, lost a brother to AIDS around this time and knew the man she hugged. ‘My parents knew of individuals who’d been fired from their jobs for volunteering for AIDS organizations. That’s how crazy the fear was,’ he wrote in 2012. ‘In a time of ignorance, her wise touch eased the sting of exclusion for my friend and many others. Thank you, Mrs. Bush.’”

Excuse me, please. I’m going to throw up now.

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