Think you know history? Believe Donald Trump has been bad for LGBTQ Americans? Or that George W. Bush used the “threat” of same-sex marriage as a scare tactic to win re-election in 2004? Try as they might, neither of them comes close to Ronald Reagan’s AIDS legacy.
What was first known only as “gay cancer,” then HTLV-III, had a name by 1981 that stuck: acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Reagan had come into office only months ahead of that first diagnosis in June.
Ironically enough, he’d been shot in March by a would-be assassin and required a blood transfusion — a procedure that would later transmit the AIDS virus to tennis great Arthur Ashe, a young hemophiliac named Ryan White and countless others. It killed Ashe and White, and scores more before them and after.
We Have a Problem
No one knows precisely what was said behind closed doors in the Oval Office about AIDS during the Reagan’s two terms. There was a dark joke that circulated about it at the time, though. It went something like this: A presidential aide comes into the Oval Office and says, “Mr. President, there’s a new disease spreading like wildfire across the country and it’s killing minorities, IV drug users and homosexuals.”
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As it turns out, that bit of gallows humor might have been a fairly accurate depiction of prevailing attitudes at the White House.
You have only to watch the video short below by filmmaker Scott Calonico to see that the Reagan administration had nothing but contempt for the human beings whose bodies were piling up outside their doors. It’s called When AIDS Was Funny, and first appeared online via a Vanity Fair article at the end of 2015.
In case you missed any of that, here’s a transcript of White House spokesman Larry Speakes interacting with reporter Lester Kinsolving, who is neither gay nor liberal.
Larry Speakes: AIDS? I haven’t got anything on it.
Lester Kinsolving: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” [audible laughter from the press assembled in the room] No, it is. It’s a pretty serious thing. One in every three people that get this have died. And I wonder if the president was aware of this.
Speakes: I don’t have it. [More press pool laughter.] Do you?
Kinsolving: You don’t have it? Well, I’m relieved to hear that, Larry! [press pool laughter]
Speakes: Do you?
Kinsolving: No, I don’t.
Speakes: You didn’t answer my question. How do you know? [more laughter]
Kinsolving: Does the president — in other words, the White House — look on this as a great joke?
Speakes: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
By 1984, more than 4,200 had died, when Speakes took up the topic of AIDS and Reagan’s inaction with Kinsolving again.
Speakes: Lester is beginning to circle now. He’s moving up front. Go ahead.
Kinsolving: Since the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta report is going to… [Press pool laughter]
Speakes: This is going to be an AIDS question.
Kinsolving: …that an estimated…
Speakes: You were close.
Kinsolving: Can I ask the question, Larry? That an estimated 300,000 people have been exposed to AIDS, which can be transmitted through saliva. (Kinsolving was speaking only from what was known at the time. Scientists eventually discovered that HIV, the virus which causes AIDS, can only be transmitted through blood, vaginal fluids, breast milk, semen, and pre-seminal and anal fluids.) 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 bed typhoid fever people from being involved in the health or food services? [A sit-com level undercurrent laughter can be heard throughout the question.]
Speakes: I don’t know.
Kinsolving: Is the president concerned about this subject, Larry?
Speakes: I haven’t heard him express concern.
Kinsolving: That seems to have evoked such jocular reaction here. [more laughter]
A voice in the room: It isn’t only the jocks, Lester.
A voice in the room: Has he sworn off water faucets now?
Kinsolving: No, but I mean, is he going to do anything, Larry?
Speakes: Lester, I have not heard him express anything. Sorry.
Kinsolving: You mean he has expressed no opinion about this epidemic?
Speakes: No, but I must confess I haven’t asked him about it.
Kinsolving: Will you ask him, Larry?
Speakes: Have you been checked? [ambient laughter]
A voice in the room: Is the president going to ban mouth-to-mouth kissing?
Kinsolving: What? Pardon? I didn’t hear your answer.
Speakes: [Laughs] Ah, it’s hard work. I don’t get paid enough. Um. Is there anything else we need to do here?
The presidential spokesman later admitted in his own 1988 memoir, “Speaking Out,” that he had fabricated Reagan quotes on numerous occasions.
The word “AIDS” finally escaped Reagan’s lips publicly in 1985. Five thousand people were dead from the disease by then — most of them gay men. That same year, Reagan’s Hollywood friend Rock Hudson wasted away before the eyes of Americans on Dynasty before AIDS killed him, too.
When Reagan did address the disease, it was not in the context of how it was slaughtering gay men, intravenous drug users and people of color. It was about whether kids who became positive could interact with uninfected classmates in public school. Mind you, this was after the CDC had concluded that “casual person-to-person contact as would occur among schoolchildren appears to pose no risk.”
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Here’s what the president, often called “the great communicator” in his time, had to say:
“I can well understand the plight of the parents and how they feel about it,” Reagan said. “I also have compassion, as I think we all do, for the child that has this and doesn’t know and can’t have it explained to him why somehow he is now an outcast and can no longer associate with his playmates and schoolmates.”
“On the other hand, I can understand the problem with the parents. It is true that some medical sources had said that this cannot be communicated in any way other than the ones we already know and which would not involve a child being in the school. And yet medicine has not come forth unequivocally and said, ‘This we know for a fact, that it is safe.’ And until they do, I think we just have to do the best we can with this problem. I can understand both sides of it.”
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
Privately, Reagan had helped his gay conservative friend Roy Cohn, who had contracted the disease, get into an experimental drug trial. As for the public at large? Reagan refuses to let his Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, speak on the topic. When Koop did issue a report on AIDS, the president was not happy, since it called for sex education, widespread condom distribution and rejected mandatory testing. In 1988, Koop actually had a mailer created on HIV/AIDS prevention and how condom use could drastically alter infection rates.
Yes, funds were appropriated under Reagan to address the disease. In that same September 1985 press conference, Reagan claimed that he wanted Congress to approve a massive government research effort against AIDS, not unlike Nixon’s campaign against cancer a decade earlier.
Too Little, Too Late
The president declared, “It’s been one of the top priorities with us, and over the last 4 years, and including what we have in the budget for ’86, it will amount to over a half a billion dollars that we have provided for research on AIDS in addition to what I’m sure other medical groups are doing.” He also remarked, “Yes, there’s no question about the seriousness of this and the need to find an answer.”
According to Wikipedia, “Annual AIDS related funding was $44 million in 1983, 2 years after he took office, and was $1.6 billion in 1988, an increase of over 3,600 percent.”
That’s the power of the purse. As to how many lives might have been saved had Reagan used the bully pulpit of the presidency to warn, caution or even update the public? That is unknowable.
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Last modified: November 11, 2019