On April 17, 2018, America lost its 41st first lady and the mother of its 43rd president.
Barbara Bush passed away at her Houston home at the age of 92. A well-known — but flawed — first lady, she used her platform to advocate for increased family literacy.
In a thoughtful display of bipartisanship and respect, Barack Obama, ever a champion of goodness toward all people, wrote a lovely, heartfelt statement in remembrance of Bush.
His tweet is a welcome display of reaching across the aisle, particularly when humans go through, well, human things.
At a time when Americans are more split politically than ever, when the current president can’t even seem to get the death date of a famous political figure correct, and when it seems that being as rude and ostracizing as possible is the way to be heard, Obama’s tweet is an important example of how to treat each other with grace.
It certainly is indicative of his beliefs about humanity, and his belief that Americans, regardless of political affiliation, can come together first. “Those of us who have the privilege to serve this country have an obligation to do our job as best we can,” Obama said in 2013. “We come from different parties, but we are Americans first.”
While Obama’s tweet — and general life outlook — is certainly a beautiful display of affection toward the Bush family and Americans as a whole, it’s important to recognize Bush’s life as a lesson. Though beloved for her championship of family literacy and her honesty about the difficulty of losing a child, she’s also a polarizing figure for valid reasons.
After Anita Hill’s historic sexual harassment testimony against Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Bush reportedly denied Hill’s claims, questioned her integrity, and defended Thomas by referring to him as “a good man.” In the Maine gubernatorial race, she endorsed Paul LePage, who called people of color “the enemy right now.”
Her response to Hurricane Katrina victims — that they “should be thankful” for Houston’s help — was widely viewed as condescending. “And so many of the people in the [Houston Astrodome] here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them,” Bush said in 2005, seeming to imply they would prefer to live in an arena-turned-homeless-shelter instead of their own homes.
She was a flawed person, and we absolutely shouldn’t whitewash her mistakes.
But, as with many flawed politicians and political figures, she was also human, with hopes and dreams and pains and failures.
While we shouldn’t ignore her missteps, we can follow Obama’s example by learning from them.
We can support women in their careers and when they share their stories, we can advocate for immigrants and people of color, and we can listen to and help those who experience challenges, rather than disparaging them.
By recognizing the contributions Bush made to society, as Obama did, we can support the good causes she championed, respect the complicated life she lived, and take the good from views that may be different from ours.
Most importantly, we can stand with our fellow Americans when they need it most.