Opinion: This could be Melania’s Barbara Bush moment
On Monday, first lady Melania Trump sat between stacks of large white cubes emblazoned with “BE BEST” and read a children’s book to the littles ones gathered around her for the 141st annual White House Easter Egg Roll. At each new page, she smiled and held it up for them to see.
What a contrast to her husband, the president, who briefly sat at a table of coloring children and brayed about his imaginary wall to keep away children who are fleeing for their lives.
“Oh, it’s happening; it’s being built,” he said with his face partially obscured by plastic eggs bobbing on springs attached to the headbands of two little girls. He smiled. “A young guy just said, ‘Keep building that wall.’ Do you believe it? He’s going to be a conservative some day.”
Immediately, I thought of the late first lady Barbara Bush. I’m sure this had something to do with my having just read a particular section of Susan Page’s new biography of Bush, “The Matriarch.”
In 1989, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Bush, a Republican, took on her husband’s virtual silence about the growing crisis as only a first lady could. She visited “Grandma’s House,” one of the first hospices in the country for children with HIV and AIDS, in Washington, D.C.
The address was a secret, to protect its young residents from being targeted for violence. At this time, many people still believed they could be infected by merely touching someone with the disease. Bush knew this wasn’t true, and she set out to prove it.
From Page’s book:
“Barbara Bush played with three of the children on the floor and then went upstairs to the bedroom of an infant too sick to be brought downstairs. Donovan began whimpering in his crib, and Tate picked him up. ‘Debbie and Joan, you’re providing great care and services, but give me that baby!’ Barbara Bush demanded. ‘You don’t know what you are doing.” She cradled Donovan with the confidence of experience, and he quieted down.
“The photograph of that moment, taken by Dennis Cook of the Associated Press, became iconic. It was remarkable precisely because it was so ordinary. Barbara Bush held a sweet-faced baby against her shoulder, her face pressed against his flushed check and her hand stroking his back. His eyes are closed, his mouth is open; his body is at ease…”
With one grandmotherly gesture, cuddling a baby, the first lady forced the world — including her husband, the president — to see what she already knew: Uninformed bigotry about HIV/AIDS was causing additional, unnecessary harm to infected children and adults.
Baby Donovan died soon after, but Bush’s visit changed hearts and minds. Grandma’s House co-founders Debbie Tate and Joan McCarley writing for the Washington Post after Barbara Bush’s death last year: “Thanks to the spotlight (she) afforded us, we became an international model for 24-hour residential care for HIV-infected infants and children.”
Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that Trump is considering returning to his cruel and dangerous program of separating children from their families at the southern border.
Also last month, government officials told a federal judge that it may take two years to identify possibly thousands of immigrant children who have already been separated at the border.
Countless doctors and children’s advocates have sent letters to the Trump administration about the dangers of these long-term separations. Nearly 8,000 mental health experts signed a petition with this warning: “To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma.”
Journalists have chronicled how, after just three months’ separation, some of these young children no longer recognize their parents. Grieving parents describe bright and engaged kids changed by the wounds of trauma.
Donald Trump’s response: Let’s do it again.
There is one person in this administration who could force his hand.
Go to the border, first lady Melania Trump.
Take the reporters and photographers with you and go cradle the babies that your husband wants to rip from parents’ arms. Hold the hands of those mothers and fathers, and listen to them describe why they have risked everything to flee and save their children’s lives. Hear the anguish in their voices. See the fear in their eyes.
At the Easter roll, you read Emily Winfield Martin’s book, “The Wonderful Things You Will Be.” You held up that page and asked the children gathered around you, “Will you stand up for good by saving the day?”
Go to the border, Mrs. Trump.
— Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with Creators Syndicate.