Ronald Reagan and AIDS: Correcting the Record

Ronald Reagan and AIDS: Correcting the Record

By Carl M. Cannon - June 1, 2014

I’ve never met Larry Kramer, but he and I have something in common: In the 1980s, we found Gary Bauer maddeningly obtuse on the question of whether Ronald Reagan should speak to Americans about the AIDS epidemic.

I was a reporter in the San Jose Mercury News Washington bureau covering the federal response to the epidemic. Bauer was a Reagan administration official aligned with other social conservatives resistant to having the president play a visible role on AIDS. Kramer was, and remains, a prominent gay rights activist.

In early 1987, after Bauer became chief White House domestic policy adviser, prominent voices in the medical community were calling for Reagan to deliver a major address about the crisis. Why have a “Great Communicator” in office, they said, if he won’t communicate the message that safe sex is a matter of life-or-death?

I put that question to Bauer in March of that year. He expressed dismay at the thought of a U.S. president uttering the word “condom.” But with so many people dying of this disease, I found his concern callous—and told him so.

Larry Kramer tells a similar tale, but with more sinister undertones. He claims that in “a personal communication with me in his White House office in April of 1983,” Bauer told him that the president was “irrevocably opposed to anything having to do with homosexuality.”

I’m skeptical. For starters, in 1983 Gary Bauer didn’t work in the White House; he was a mid-level functionary in the Department of Education. More importantly, even before he became president, Reagan had proven the opposite of “irrevocably opposed” to gays, and had demonstrated this tolerance at substantial risk to his presidential ambitions. One can argue that no American politician ever confronted anti-gay prejudice more courageously.

That was in 1978. I was covering education for a California newspaper at the time. Three years removed from the governorship, Reagan was the anointed hero of American conservatism and the presumptive 1980 Republican presidential nominee when an Orange County state legislator, John Briggs, spearheaded a ballot initiative called Proposition 6 to bar gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools.

Reagan’s political handlers advised him to steer clear, but gay Republicans privately asked him to get involved, as did some Democratic friends and some Hollywood pals. Briggs, who wrongly assumed Reagan was on his side, publicly goaded him, too.

Intensive politicking by the California’s liberal establishment had pared Proposition 6’s support from a whopping 75 percent to 55 percent, but that’s where the needle stayed—until Reagan spoke out. In September, he told reporters of his opposition, and followed up with an op-ed saying Proposition 6 would do “real mischief.” Support for it eroded, even in Briggs’ home county, and it lost handily.

One of those who’d urged Reagan to intervene was Los Angeles gay activist David Mixner, a friend of future president Bill Clinton. “Never have I been treated more graciously by a human being,” Mixner said of his meeting with Reagan. “He turned opinion around and saved that election for us. He just thought it was wrong and came out against it.”

This didn’t surprise those who knew Reagan. Like most movie actors, he had several gay friends. But even this is used against him by partisans. “Reagan did not even mention the word AIDS,” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote last week, “until the disease was impossible to ignore and his friend Rock Hudson had died from it.”

This is almost true. It was Hudson who wouldn’t discuss AIDS; Reagan actually mentioned the disease publicly for the first time two weeks before his friend passed away. But Cohen gets his information about Reagan and AIDS from Larry Kramer—his column was touting Kramer’s new HBO movie—and Kramer is not a reliable source on the 40th president.

He often claims that Reagan never mentioned AIDS for the first seven years of his presidency. Although this falsehood is easily checked, it has spread, like its own kind of virus, into official government documents, liberals’ institutional memories, and countless news accounts from organizations with contrary evidence in their own files. It’s a fabrication with consequences. Three years after Reagan’s death, a New York Review of Books essay offering a measured reassessment of Reagan prompted this response from Kramer:

“Ronald Reagan may have done laudable things but he was also a monster and, in my estimation, responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler,” he wrote. “He is one of the persons most responsible for allowing the plague of AIDS to grow from 41 cases in 1981 to over 70 million today. He refused to even say the word out loud for the first seven years of his presidency and when he did speak about it, it was with disdain.”

Comparing a political opponent to Hitler is obvious evidence of fanaticism, but we are living in hyper-partisan times. Rep. Henry Waxman’s official congressional website repeats the “seven years” calumny while adding that “the Reagan administration consistently refused to commit the resources and effort necessary to provide urgently needed research, health care, and preventive services.”

For the record, Reagan first mentioned AIDS, in response to a question at a press conference, on Sept. 17, 1985. On Feb. 5, 1986, he made a surprise visit to the Department of Health and Human Services where he said, “One of our highest public health priorities is going to be continuing to find a cure for AIDS.” He also announced that he’d tasked Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to prepare a major report on the disease. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, Reagan dragged Koop into AIDS policy, not the other way around.

As for Waxman’s recollections about AIDS funding, he does an unusual thing for a politician: He’s forgotten the success he and other Democrats had in convincing Reagan to spend more money. The administration increased AIDS funding requests from $8 million in 1982 to $26.5 million in 1983, which Congress bumped to $44 million, a number that doubled every year thereafter during Reagan’s presidency.

Finally, the claim that Reagan spoke about AIDS sufferers with “disdain” is simply a smear. Nothing like that ever happened, except maybe in the fictional “The Reagans” miniseries in which Barbra Streisand’s husband played Reagan as a bigot and rube.

In real life—that is to say in 1983, early in the AIDS crisis—HHS Secretary Margaret Heckler (accompanied by New York City Mayor Ed Koch, another Larry Kramer target), went to the hospital bedside of a 40-year-old AIDS patient named Peter Justice. Heckler, a devout Catholic, held the dying man’s hand, both out of compassion and to allay fears about how the disease was spread.

“We ought to be comforting the sick,” said Ronald Reagan’s top-ranking health official, “rather than afflicting them and making them a class of outcasts.”

“I’m delighted she’s here,” Justice said. “I’m delighted she cares.” 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Carl M. Cannon

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter