Monday, June 05, 2006


Reagan's Other Legacy

On this date in 1981, tragedy struck. For it was on this day that the Centers for Disease Control, in their Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, remarked on a strange group of pneumonia cases in five gay men. Originally known as GRID, or Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, this fatal disease would eventually become known as AIDS. Now, twenty-five years later, AIDS has infected an estimated 65 million people worldwide, 25 million of which have died. It has become the scourge of many countries around the world killing five people evey minute. In the United States alone, over 500,000 people have died of the AIDs virus - more than ten times the number of Americans killed in Vietnam - with an estimated 40,000 new cases diagnosed each year.

During that first year, 339 cases of AIDS were diagnosed in the United States. Five years later, that number had grown to 19,404 - an increase of almost 6000%. You might think that this would prompt some sort of reaction fom the government, but you would be wrong.

The president at the time was, of course, Ronald Reagan, the great communicator insensitive bastard who once claimed that people were homeless "by choice." During his eight year tenure in the White House, Reagan only used the word AIDS on record one time. It was never mentioned in any of his eight State of the Union addresses, but in a statement to the press in September of 1985. To understand the Reagan administration's true view on the disease, we only need to look at a transcript from an October, 1982, press conference by White Deputy House Press Secretary Larry Speakes.
Les Kinsolving: 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?

Larry Speakes: What’s AIDS?

Kinsolving: Over a third of [the victims] 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?

Speakes: I don’t have it. Do you? (laughter)

Kinsolving: No, I don’t.

Speakes: You didn’t answer my question.

Kinsolving: Well, I just wondered, does the president—

Speakes: How do you know? (laughter)

Kinsolving: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?

Speakes: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.

Kinsolving: Does the president, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?

Speakes: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any—

Kinsolving: Nobody knows?

Speakes: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.

Kinsolving: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping—

Speakes: I checked thoroughly with [Reagan’s personal physician] Dr. Ruge this morning, and he’s had no—(laughter)—no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.

The sensitivity is underwhelming, to say the least.

For another example of the administration's crass indifference, one only needs to be reminded of this well known story:
At a 1986 centenary rededication of the Statue of Liberty, Ronald Reagan and his wife were sitting next to French President Francois Mitterand and his wife, Danielle. Bob Hope was on stage entertaining the all-star audience. In the middle of a series of one-liners Hope quipped, “I just heard that the Statue of Liberty has AIDS but she doesn’t know if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Fairy.” As the television camera panned the audience, the Mitterands looked shocked. The Reagans were laughing hysterically.

Certainly, I'm not blaming Ronald Reagan for the spread of the AIDS disease. Nor am blaming him for our continued inability to find a cure. What I will blame him for, however, is contributing to a culture that ridiculed and demeaned those who were suffering. It was through insensitive remarks like those made by his staff, that many here in the United States considered AIDS and homosexuality to be a laughing matter. (I even remember my eighth grade Civics teacher making a joke about AIDS one day during class.) This attitude, no doubt, greatly hindered forward progress toward a public acceptance and understanding of a horrifyingly deadly disease.

Had the Reagan administration not treated AIDS as a laughing matter during those early years, we may have reached our current state of treatment much sooner. I shudder to think of the number of lives that may have been saved if Reagan hadn't thought it was such a fucking joke.

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