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Barbara Bush’s compassion spoke volumes

In March 1989, during her time as first

In March 1989, during her time as first lady, Barbara Bush visits Grandma's House, a home in Washington for babies and small children infected with the AIDS virus. Credit: AP / Dennis Cook

The death of Barbara Bush at age 92 on Tuesday has led to an understandable focus on her role as the wife of one American president and the mother of another. Her 73-year marriage to George H.W. Bush, the longest union in presidential history, was indeed remarkable.

But in the end, it was some of Barbara Bush’s own actions that might have mattered more.

In March 1989, shortly after her husband took office, she visited a pediatric AIDS care center in Washington. There, she cradled an infant with HIV, which causes AIDS, and hugged an adult with AIDS. Her simple gestures and message of compassion resonated powerfully at a time of hysteria, when many people incorrectly thought they could get AIDS simply by being near someone infected with the dreaded virus.

She raised more than $1 million for literacy programs and with her husband started a foundation to raise funds for research on leukemia, the disease that killed their oldest daughter, Robin, when she was 3.

While her candor led to the occasional intemperate remark, Barbara Bush will be remembered as a fiercely supportive political matriarch whose empathy spoke louder than her words.