This has been one hell of an election season, with outrageous claims and promises spewing from all sides of the aisle. I’ve felt, many times, like I was trying to keep my balance on a tiny boat in a huge turbulent sea. People speak in sound bytes and declarations, hustling for votes and Internet clicks, and it all seems like a wall of noise that has yet to die down. It’s hard to take a lot of it seriously, considering how much seems to be just noise and political prostitution, but when Hillary Clinton spoke up today about Nancy Reagan, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.
I’ll confess that, when Nancy died, I thought good riddance. I had a similar reaction when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed. The world won’t be emptier without either of them. I won’t miss either of them. I was profoundly marked by the AIDS epidemic, which, if it had not been for the Reagan years, might never have been an epidemic.
In honor of Nancy’s death, Hillary felt compelled to say this:
“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980’s and because of both President and Mrs Reagan—in particular Mrs Reagan—we started a national conversation, when before nobody would talk about it, nobody wanted to do anything about it. And, you know, that too is something that I really appreciate was her very effective but low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience, and people began to say ‘hey we have to do something about this too.'”
Except it was not advocacy at all, and the Reagans didn’t speak up until YEARS after AIDS had penetrated “the public conscience.” By the time Ronald Reagan first gave a speech about the disease in 1987, near the end of his second term, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and 20,849 had died. The disease had spread to 113 countries. That indicates a pretty significant penetration of “public conscience,” and people’s desperate cries for health and government intervention amounted as far more intense than “hey we have to do something about this.” People were dying and no one knew why, and no one could stop it.
My current research project revolves around the impact of AIDS on social and cultural consciousness more than thirty years after its initial diagnosis in 1981. My mind and my work revolves around the horrific trauma that was the AIDS outbreak, and it is impossible not to wonder how different our landscape would be if the Reagan administration had taken action back in 1981, rather than laughing at the fact that gays were getting what they deserved.
The first time a reporter asked Reagan Press Secretary Larry Speakes about HIV, he was met with laughter:
October 15, 1982:
Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
MR. SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don’t.
MR. SPEAKES: You didn’t answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President—
MR. SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)
Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
Q: Does the President, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any—
Q: Nobody knows?
MR. SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.
Q: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping—
MR. SPEAKES: I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he’s had no—(laughter)—no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.
Q: The President doesn’t have gay plague, is that what you’re saying or what?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I didn’t say that.
Q: Didn’t say that?
MR. SPEAKES: I thought I heard you on the State Department over there. Why didn’t you stay there? (Laughter.)
Q: Because I love you, Larry, that’s why. (Laughter.)
MR. SPEAKES: Oh, I see. Just don’t put it in those terms, Lester. (Laughter.)
Dr. C. Everett Koop, Reagan’s surgeon general, later explained that “intradepartmental politics” kept Reagan out of all AIDS discussions for the first five years of the administration “because transmission of AIDS was understood to be primarily in the homosexual population and in those who abused intravenous drugs.” The president’s advisers, Koop said, “took the stand, ‘They are only getting what they justly deserve.'”
Reagan’s communications director Pat Buchanan argued that AIDS is “nature’s revenge on gay men.”
I may have been too young during the 1980s to experience the panic and desperation firsthand, but I did start to read and research it in the 1990s, and obviously it has stuck with me to this day. Scientists and ordinary people impacted by the virus cried out for more funding. The death tolls skyrocketed. Reagan (both Ron and Nancy) were silent.
Writing in the Washington Post in late 1985, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, stated: “It is surprising that the president could remain silent as 6,000 Americans died, that he could fail to acknowledge the epidemic’s existence.”
But ignore it he did.
And as a result, the CDC estimates that more than 1.2 million people in the United States are currently living with HIV infection, and almost 1 in 8 (12.8%) are unaware of their infection. Approximately 658,507 people in the United States with an AIDS diagnosis have died overall.
“In the history of the AIDS epidemic, President Reagan’s legacy is one of silence,” said Michael Cover, former associate executive director for public affairs at Whitman-Walker Clinic, the groundbreaking AIDS health-care organization in Washington. “It is the silence of tens of thousands who died alone and unacknowledged, stigmatized by our government under his administration.”
While it is possible that Nancy may have been more inclined to speak up than her husband, the bar is set so low, that any credit given to either of them feels like too much. It seems incredible that Hillary would not only be unaware of these damning facts, but that she would somehow be unaware of Chris Geidner’s report in BuzzFeed last year that exposed Nancy Reagan’s refusal to help her dying friend Rock Hudson:
“Only one hospital in the world can offer necessary medical treatment to save life of Rock Hudson or at least alleviate his illness,” Dale Olson [Rock Hudson’s publicist] wrote. Although the commanding officer had denied Hudson admission to the French military hospital initially, Olson wrote that they believed “a request from the White House…would change his mind.”
She said no.
Despite the tendency to play fast and loose with facts while on the campaign trail, it mystifies and angers me that Hillary can say she “appreciates” Nancy’s efforts to raise AIDS awareness. And then, when confronted for her mistake, all she can say is, “While the Reagans were strong advocates for stem cell research and finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, I misspoke about their record on HIV and AIDS. For that, I’m sorry.”
And that’s it. As if that simple apology could rectify such an egregious error, such a shameless attempt not only to play fast and loose with facts, but to rewrite history, giving Nancy Reagan praise for something when she actually deserves condemnation. Both Reagans could have done so much more, not only to stop the exploding death tolls but to stem the homophobic vitriol spewed by their administration.
I may have to live with the fact that Ronald Reagan has an airport named after him, but I will not live with the illusion that Nancy Reagan did anything to support AIDS research and AIDS patients. The death toll is all the proof I need.