Thursday, June 10, 2004

REAGAN AND AIDS. One of Ronald Reagan's most shameful legacies was his indifference toward the then-emerging AIDS epidemic. This press briefing, conducted by Reagan spokesman Larry Speakes in 1982, is a good reminder of what things were like then.

Granted, Reagan doesn't appear personally in this briefing, and much of this has more to do with what some people thought was a laff riot at the time. But the Reagan White House's lack of interest in a disease that would soon decimate the gay community is palpable.


Office of the Press Secretary


October 15, 1982

The Briefing Room

12:45pm EDT

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?


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 anyone 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.

This transcript is taken from the prologue to Jon Cohen's 2001 book, Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine, the full text of which can be found here.

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Anonymous said...

Great Blog Dan -
This transcript says as much about the White House press corp and it's attitude towards AIDS, as it does about Ronald Reagan or Larry Speakes.
The laughter from the gathering and the exchange of wisecracks indicate the 1982 level of ignorance about AIDS.
Reagan was no hero in this fight. But he was not alone on the sidelines or in the peanut gallery.

Anonymous said...

Excellent point. The seething hatred toward mainstream America harbored by the radical gay community seems to have utterly precluded its capacity to consider any issue from a perspective other than their own, which the vast majority of the population does not share.

Though Reagan was not a "hero" in this fight, it has never been established to any sufficient burden that he ought to have been. This was 1982 for crying out loud, barely one year after the first peep of a 'mysterious syndrome' hit the medical journals. The vast majority of physicians and health care professionals in the United States knew nothing about this problem in 1982.

Reagan's alleged 'inaction' (which can only be supported when one completely ignores the double-digit and often triple-digit increases in annual funding for AIDs/HIV research that occurred during the Reagan years) has been contrasted with FDR's leading advocacy in finding a cure for Polio. Of course, there is absolutely nothing analogous here.

Polio had been a feared recurrent global epidemic since at least the 18th century and was again sweeping through North America in epidemic proportions prior to Roosevelt running for President. Roosevelt contracted Polio during one of those epidemic waves. This cause was near and dear to Roosevelt ONLY because it directly afflicted him.

Yet, despite these facts, Roosevelt didn't establish the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis until after he was elected to his second term in office. Why did Roosevelt wait five long insufferable years to bring relief to Polio victims? How many children died or became permanently disabled in those five years? Would Larry Kramer extend the same vitriolic hatred to Roosevelt as being 'to Polio victims what Hitler was to Jews'?

I'm sure Kramer would excuse FDR's indifference to Polio victims for five long insufferable years because the Great Depression was a more urgent national problem than Polio claiming tens of thousands more victims, conveniently ignoring the double-digit inflation, double-digit unemployment, and double-digit interest rates Reagan was tasked with solving; as though the worst economic stagnation since the Great Depression should have taken a back seat to a mysterious new illness that claimed only a few hundred victims at the time.

Would FDR have given two hoots about dead and paralyzed children had he not personally been afflicted by this condition? Are there not other disabling or fatal diseases against which Roosevelt, and every other president for that matter, did not take up the fight? What about the victims of every other disabling or fatal disease which any given President does not make a centerpiece of his Presidency? Is this indifference also tantamount to mass murder and concentration camps? Nope, this standard is reserved only for Reagan.

I've read the transcript several times, trying to tease out even the slightest bit of "damning" evidence or connotation, but the most "damning" thing I've been able to find is:

- The lack of knowledge about, and seeming indifference towards, the then not-yet-emerged HIV/AIDS 'epidemic' demonstrated by Larry Speakes (*not* President Reagan), the press corp, and the inquiring journalist himself, was not substantively different than was true for 95% of the US population at the time, including the vast majority of health care professionals who did not practice in an urban center with a booming sub-culture of IV drug users, extremely promiscuous homosexual men, or both.

Again, this was 1982, not 1992. Radical gays who for too long have immersed themselves in the extraordinary dysfunction that is gay culture may find it inconceivable that the vast majority of the US population in 1982 was about as 'attuned' to the then not-yet-emerged HIV/AIDS epidemic as to the mathematical basis for Quantum Physics, but the fact is, HIV/AIDS in 1982 was every bit as foreign and distant to the overwhelming majority of Americans and would remain so for a number of years. This includes the majority of health care professionals.

About the O-N-L-Y people attuned to this emerging crisis in 1982 were a small number of medical investigators, epidemiologists, public health officials (but only those in a handful of urban centers), and those DIRECTLY impacted by HIV/AIDS, which was miniscule portion of the population.

We know Reagan wasn't out there in public stumping for IV drug abusers and promiscuous homosexual men every chance he got, nor the numerous diseases this portion of the population was notorious for contracting (often proudly as though it were some perverse measure of one's sexual exploits).

But what is even more grotesque and outrageous is the belief Reagan ought to have been.