Ronald Reagan's legacy has taken a lot of criticism over the years about his lame response to the AIDS crisis. How much of that criticism is based on fact and how much on perception? Reagan himself might not have been the real problem, but the company he kept most certainly had an impact on his way of dealing with the emerging epidemic.
Association and Contact
On July 5, 1981, less than six months after Ronald Reagan took office, an article appeared in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). The newsletter is a weekly report distributed by the CDC written by University of California-Los Angeles Dr. Michael Gottlieb and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Dr. Wayne Shandera. In it, an article detailed the unusual cases of a new type of pneumonia which specifically seemed to target gay males.
According to the report, the cases suggested “some association between some aspect of a homosexual lifestyle or disease acquired through sexual contact.” The article was to mark the first public announcement of the disease which became known as AIDS and later HIV infection.
In January of 1982, President Reagan appointed as his Surgeon General of the United States, C. Everett Koop, a pediatric surgeon and vice admiral in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Basically, the Surgeon General is principal public health and science advisor to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Koop was destined to play a key role in the story of the epidemic and the failure of the administration to deal with it.
Having by this time fully recovered from the assassination attempt in March, President Reagan was fully immersed in the complications of the tax plan he would submit to Congress the following month. The assassination attempt had, according to some reports, left Reagan with a sense of mission, bordering on the messianic.
The president was sure that God had spared him for a larger purpose. His feeling was affirmed on April 17, Good Friday, by New York's Terence Cardinal Cooke. "The hand of God was upon you," Cooke told Reagan. Reagan grew very serious. "I know," he replied, before confiding to the Cardinal: "I have decided that whatever time I have left is for Him."
In the same month, the president and his wife had a private meal with Mother Teresa, a Catholic nun whose work with the poor of Calcutta had made her world famous. Mother Teresa told the president at the meeting, “Mr. President Reagan, do you know that we stayed up for two straight nights praying for you after you were shot?" she stated, pointing to a younger sister who was joining them. "We prayed very hard for you to live."
She told him also that he had been saved for a specific purpose.
"You have suffered the passion of the cross and have received grace. There is a purpose to this…. This has happened to you at this time because your country and the world need you."
Meanwhile, with this sense of mission, Reagan, and his administration began to address the conservative agenda, namely, by slashing social programs and cutting taxes under the guise of moral principles and new-found nationalism.
Over six months from that date, in July 1982, a total of 452 cases of AIDS, from 23 states, had been reported to the CDC.
The first official mention of AIDS by any official in the administration came at a press conference in October of 1982. By any measure, the press briefing conducted by Larry Speakes was an embarrassingly incompetent discussion of the issue.
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 has died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don't have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
The Wrath of God
The following year, the news about the gay plague known as AIDS had begun to filter down to the general public. It was a subject that President Reagan would rather not have discussed. He had his reasons.
According to the book, Encyclopedia of AIDS: a social, political, cultural, and scientific record of the HIV epidemic, by Adjunct Assistant Professor Raymond A. Smith states:
For Reagan, AIDS presented a number of serious political risks. As a presidential candidate, Reagan promised to eliminate the role of the federal government in the limited US welfare state, as well as to raise questions of morality and family in social policy.
Furthermore, Reagan owed a lot to the Christian Right who in the presidential election had switched allegiance from born-again Jimmy Carter to Reagan. Any chance of re-election in 1984 depended on keeping the conservative religious groups appeased.
Right Wing religious groups were prepared to capitalize on the growing fears of the public.
Of the new voices that clamored to present an opinion on AIDS in 1983 and beyond, few were louder than that of Jerry Falwell, pastor of the 22,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. During a rally in Cincinnati in July of that year, Falwell infamously called AIDS a “gay plague” while challenging President Ronald Reagan to make policy changes that would protect the “innocent American public.” In doing so, he raised the ire of the White House, which would rather have ignored the growing epidemic indefinitely, and homosexual activists, who were understandably upset by the outdated characterization of the disease.
Thus, it was the American public, not the sick and dying, who were being ignored and who were under threat. The term, innocent, was well-chosen. For Falwell and other conservatives, it meant heterosexual, drug-free and religious Americans. The actual victims of the disease were merely carriers and as guilty as, well, sin.
The haemophiliacs were seen as the "innocent victims" of AIDS whereas gay men and drug-users were seen as having brought the disease upon themselves.
Many activists felt the growing hostility toward victims of the disease by the conservatives created an atmosphere where a certain minority of citizens, merely because of their homosexuality, were being scapegoated and stigmatized.
Falwell claimed that his organization was not, despite much evidence to the contrary, a religious organization attempting to control the government. “Moral majority is a special interest group of millions of Americans who share the same moral values.”It was widely reported, as well, that new Right groups, such as the Moral Majority, successfully prevented funding for AIDS education programs and counseling services for PWAs. At various point in the epidemic, conservatives called for the quarantining and tattooing of PWAs. Jerry Falwell, the leader of the Moral Majority was quoted as stating: AIDS is the wrath of GOD upon homosexuals."
By the end of the year, the number of AIDS cases in the USA had risen to 3,064 and of these 1,292 had died.
While the Major Majority was proclaiming that the disease was the judgment of God, the World Health Organization that year made a grim assessment of the global AIDS situation. It was reported that, as of 1983, AIDS was present in the U.S.A., Canada, fifteen European countries, Haiti and Zaire as well as in seven Latin American countries. There were also cases reported from Australia and two suspected cases in Japan.
The Fallen Star
With the 1984 presidential election successfully complete, the Moral Majority had less influence over policy. The support they had provided was no longer a means of exerting control. It wasn’t something that Reagan would have publicly acknowledged, but it does explain why Reagan refused to mention AIDS until his second term, despite the hysteria.
On July 25, 1985, charismatic actor and long time friend of the Reagans, Rock Hudson issued a press release stating he had AIDS and was in France for treatment. In fact, Hudson’s publicist Dale Olson said Reagan called his fellow film star when Hudson was in a Paris hospital. Hudson became the first major celebrity to go public with such a diagnosis.
The twin shock of Hudson being gay and having AIDS was met with a stunned silence. Two months later, Dame Elizabeth Taylor and Dr. Michael S. Gottlieb founded the National AIDS Research Foundation, which conducted programs in basic research, clinical research and information, public and professional education, public policy, prevention science, and global initiatives. Taylor said what many were already thinking:
“But when I saw the kind of hypocrisy that was going on, I thought it was terrible. The industry knew homosexuals were being hit hard, but instead of extending a loving hand and saying, ‘You helped me get to where I am today, without you I wouldn’t have made it,’ they turned their backs.”
"I kept seeing all these news reports on this new disease and kept asking myself why no one was doing anything. And then I realized that I was just like them. I wasn't doing anything to help."
Although many sources report that Reagan did not mention AIDS publicly until 1987, that is not quite accurate. It was, however, more of a case of the disease reaching out to Reagan.
On September 17, 1985, he was asked about AIDS funding at a press conference. His response demonstrates if anything the muddled thinking about the crisis. At the same press conference, he was also asked a question whether he would send his children if they were younger to school with a child who has AIDS. His reply was confused and unclear.
"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."
Meanwhile, the tabloids in the UK were drumming up greater hysteria with sensational headlines, adding to the prejudice and ignorance. For example, fears caused firemen to ban mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and caused passengers aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 to cut their vacations short when a passenger was reported to be a carrier of the HIV virus.
At age 59 in Beverly Hills, California, Hudson died on October 2, 1985. While he might have been the most famous person to die that year, Hudson was not alone. By the end of 1985, 20,303 cases of AIDS had been reported to the World Health Organisation.
Suddenly, for the Reagans, AIDS was no longer an abstraction. Apparently, the death of the Hollywood legend stirred the conscience, not of Ronald Reagan, of his wife, Nancy who, according to director of the Roosevelt Institute and historian Allida Black, pushed her husband into action despite his advisers ideological objections.
With the death of Hudson, there was something of a sea change. Taylor has made AIDS activism not only acceptable but the fashion. The administration, having been dragged kicking and screaming into the politically-charged debate about what should be done about AIDS, finally decided to take action.
There were some who were not afraid to speak out about what they saw as the reasons for Reagan’s inability or unwillingness to confront the AIDS epidemic.
One of those was California Rep. Henry Waxman. In 1983, (comparatively early in the history of the disease) Waxman had held the first congressional hearing on the subject at the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Los Angeles. Two years later, in 1985, with the Reagan administration still without any real plan of action, Rep. Waxman said:
“It is surprising that the president could remain silent as 6,000 Americans died, that he could fail to acknowledge the epidemic’s existence. Perhaps his staff felt he had to, since many of his New Right supporters have raised money by campaigning against homosexuals.”
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