Reagan and AIDS: A Reassessment

by Dale Carpenter on June 24, 2004

First published on June 24, 2004, in the Bay Area Reporter.

For gay Americans, any evaluation of Ronald Reagan's legacy begins and ends with his record on AIDS. According to the conventional view, Reagan was responsible for the deaths of thousands of gay men.

On the official day of national mourning for Reagan, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) closed its office to mourn those who have died of AIDS. NGLTF's executive director, Matt Foreman, issued an open letter blasting Reagan for "years of White House silence and inaction." Eric Rofes, a gay author, complained that Reagan "said nothing and did nothing" about AIDS.

But Foreman and some other critics have gone even further, suggesting that criminal malevolence and anti-gay bigotry drove Reagan administration policies on AIDS. "I wouldn't feel so angry if the Reagan administration's failing was due to ignorance or bureaucratic ineptitude," Foreman wrote in his open letter. "No, ... we knew then it was deliberate."

According to Wayne Besen, a former spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, "we were considered expendable and forsaken by the President." Larry Kramer wrote in The Advocate that Reagan was a "murderer," worse even than Adolf Hitler.

Though exaggerated and somewhat misplaced, the negligence theory is arguable. The malice theory is a calumny.

First, it's untrue that the Reagan administration "said nothing" in response to the disease. In June 1983, a year before the virus that causes AIDS had even been publicly identified, Reagan's Secretary of Health and Human Services, Margaret Heckler, announced at the U.S. Conference of Mayors that the department "considers AIDS its number-one health priority." She specifically praised "the excellent work done by gay networks around the nation" that had spread information about the disease.

Despite the oft-repeated claim that Reagan himself didn't mention AIDS publicly until 1987, he actually first discussed it at a press conference in September 1985. Responding to a reporter's question about the need for more funding, Reagan accurately noted that the federal government had already spent more than half a billion dollars on AIDS up to that point. "So, this is a top priority with us," said Reagan. "Yes, there's no question about the seriousness of this and the need to find an answer."

Still, Reagan could have said more. He could have offered sympathy for the dying. He could have inveighed against discrimination. He could have urged prevention education. A master at using the bully pulpit for causes he believed in, Reagan manifestly failed to use it on the subject of AIDS.

In this, it must be noted, he was hardly alone. Most politicians of the age either failed to grasp the seriousness of AIDS or, grasping it, were reluctant to discuss openly a disease spread primarily through anal sex and dirty needles. For years, New York City Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat presiding over the epicenter of the disease, refused even to meet with AIDS groups. AIDS was not mentioned from the podium of either national party convention in 1984. "Silence" about AIDS was a national failing, not one peculiar to Reagan.

Second, it's untrue that the Reagan administration "did nothing" in response to the disease. Deroy Murdock, a gay-friendly conservative columnist, has reviewed federal spending on AIDS programs during the Reagan years. According to Murdock, annual spending rose from eight million dollars in 1982 to more than $2.3 billion in 1989. In all, the federal government spent almost six billion dollars on AIDS during Reagan's tenure.

It's true that Congress repeatedly added to low-ball Reagan budget requests for AIDS. But that is a familiar dynamic between any White House and any Congress: the White House proposes minimal funding for a program knowing that Congress will add to any proposal. In the 1990's, for example, the Republican Congress added to Bill Clinton's budget requests for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program.

Reagan's stinginess on AIDS funding, if that's what it was, was not due to anti-gay malevolence but was an extension of his stinginess on funding other domestic programs.

In this, too, Reagan was not alone. In his book And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts notes that in 1983 New York Governor Mario Cuomo, a hero to liberals, nixed (on fiscal grounds) the Republican-dominated state senate's bid to spend $5.2 million on AIDS research and prevention programs. Cuomo's state health commissioner responded to criticism by saying that hypertension was a more important health issue for the state.

Yes, we could have spent more, but that can always be said of federal spending. And it's unclear that additional funding would have accomplished much. "You could have poured half the national budget into AIDS in 1983, and it would have gone down a rat hole," says Michael Fumento, an author specializing in health and science issues. We simply didn't know enough about the disease early on to spend huge sums wisely.

Gay journalist Bob Roehr, who has closely followed AIDS developments for 20 years, concurs. "I have little reason to believe that a different course of action by Reagan would have significantly altered the scientific state of knowledge" toward a "cure" or vaccine, he says.

Aside from spending, it was Reagan's surgeon general who sent the first-ever bulletin to all American homes warning explicitly about AIDS transmission. Reagan created the first presidential commission dealing with AIDS. And, in 1988, Reagan barred discrimination against federal employees with HIV.

As for Reagan being a murderer, we should remember that he didn't give anybody AIDS. We ourselves bear the lion's share of responsibility for that.

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