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."
So! Nancy Reagan passed away a few days ago and that is genuinely sad, and she seemed like a very nice lady, but Clinton's version of history is arguably nonsense. The Reagan administration's record on HIV and AIDS was, by many accounts, simply abysmal.
"Shameful is not even strong enough a word for the record of the Reagan administration on this," Kevin Cathcart the executive director of Lambda Legal, told the Associated Press.
"On a personal level, she was someone who was not against gay people," said Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House adviser on gay issues. "But when the country needed leadership, President Reagan was not there, and his wife—who was able to do more—was not willing to step up. It reflects rather harshly on both of them."
This jibes only too well with Chris Geidner's report in BuzzFeed last year that Nancy Reagan refused her friend Rock Hudson's dying request for help:
"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.
Giving the Reagan administration credit for its handling of the AIDS crisis is all the more galling when you look at how the people in the administration actually responded in the moment.
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.)
Q: Oh, I retract that.
MR. SPEAKES: I hope so.
Q: It's too late.
They still thought it was pretty funny a year later: June 13, 1983:
Q: Larry, does the President think that it might help if he suggested that the gays cut down on their "cruising"? (Laughter.) What? I didn't hear your answer, Larry.
MR. SPEAKES: I just was acknowledging your interest—
Q: You were acknowledging but—
MR. SPEAKES: —interest in this subject.
Q: —you don't think that it would help if the gays cut down on their cruising—it would help AIDS?
MR. SPEAKES: We are researching it. If we come up with any research that sheds some light on whether gays should cruise or not cruise, we'll make it available to you. (Laughter.)
Q: Back to fairy tales.
The laughs just kept on coming: December 11, 1984:
MR. SPEAKES: Lester's beginning to circle now. He's moving in front. (Laughter.) Go ahead.
Q: Since the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta—(laughter)—reports—
MR. SPEAKES: This is going to be an AIDS question.
Q: —that an estimated—
MR. SPEAKES: You were close.
Q: Well, look, could I ask the question, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: You were close.
Q: An estimated 300,000 people have been exposed to AIDS, which can be transmitted through saliva. Will the President, as Commander-in-Chief, take steps to protect Armed Forces food and medical services from AIDS patients or those who run the risk of spreading AIDS in the same manner that they forbid typhoid fever people from being involved in the health or food services?
MR. SPEAKES: I don't know.
Q: Could you—Is the President concerned about this subject, Larry—
MR. SPEAKES: I haven't heard him express—
Q: —that seems to have evoked so much jocular—
Q: —reaction here? I—you know—
Q: It isn't only the jocks, Lester.
Q: Has he sworn off water faucets—
Q: No, but, I mean, is he going to do anything, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: Lester, I have not heard him express anything on it. Sorry.
Q: You mean he has no—expressed no opinion about this epidemic?
MR. SPEAKES: No, but I must confess I haven't asked him about it. (Laughter.)
Q: Would you ask him Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: Have you been checked? (Laughter.)
Go read this heartbreaking story about the first AIDS hospice. It's what they all found so funny.
Author: Ben Dreyfuss