The Truth about Reagan and AIDS

First published December 3, 2003, in National Review Online.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Since the late President Ronald Reagan passed away on June 5, 2004, Americans have taken another look at this remarkable man and his record. In so doing, a number of people have reviewed an article I did on President Reagan's policies and pronouncements on AIDS. In this process, I learned that research provided to me in good faith and received as such was nonetheless in error. While a document President Reagan transmitted to Congress on February 6, 1986 (titled "Message to the Congress on America's Agenda for the Future") mentioned the word "AIDS," his February 4, 1986 State of the Union did not, as I had written. I apologize for conflating President Reagan's speech with that subsequent document. My telephonic research perhaps would have benefited from physical inspection of these similarly named and closely dated papers.

I would add that President Reagan indeed used the word "AIDS" in a September 17, 1985, press conference. So the widely accepted myth that he did not even utter those four letters until 1987 remains precisely that:a myth.

Finally, while President Reagan's critics are free to argue that he should have done more about AIDS, and perhaps he should have, the fact that total federal HIV/AIDS expenditures grew from $0 to $5.727 billion on his watch belies the notion that he "did nothing" about this vicious disease.

"You're president of the United States," Nancy Reagan, reminded Ronald Reagan as he sat up in bed in 1983. She begged him to do something about the growing scourge of AIDS. "If you don't talk about it, nobody will talk about it. Nobody will do anything, and all these people - these children, these young boys - they're all going to die. And the blame will be on our heads, Ronnie."

President Reagan quietly kept reading through his half glasses. He seemed very cozy, clad in his bathrobe, beneath his blankets.

"Ronnie, say something," Nancy pleaded. The president coolly maintained his silence. He never even looked at his beloved First Lady.

That's how Showtime depicted a scene from the White House residence in The Reagans, the controversial TV movie about the conservative chief executive and his devoted wife. Reagan's alleged homophobia and indifference to AIDS patients are among the reasons Reaganites attacked the program, leading CBS to cancel its broadcast premiere and shift it instead to Showtime, the network's sister pay-cable channel.

The original script was far worse.

"Those who live in sin will die in sin," says President Reagan, as portrayed by actor James Brolin. Teleplaywright Elizabeth Egloff eventually admitted she had no evidence on which to base this scandalous comment. "We know he ducked the issue over and over again," she told the New York Times in self-defense.

Ronald Reagan's supposed malign neglect on AIDS and hostility to gays are twin pillars of the Left's anti-Reaganism. He still is scorned for supposedly avoiding the topic in his public pronouncements. Throughout the 1980s, protests by ACT-UP and other AIDS-advocacy groups routinely featured vicious effigies of Reagan. In one vulgar manifestation of this viewpoint, a 1994 cover illustration for Benetton's Colors magazine featured photographer Oliviero Toscani's computer-generated image of President Reagan covered with AIDS-related skin lesions. Toscani denounced Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in La Stampa, a newspaper based in Turin, Italy. "They didn't understand anything about AIDS, they did everything wrong," Toscani said that June 24. "They never realized the emergency."

Is any of this fair?

Few men have known Ronald Reagan longer or better than Edwin Meese III. He began working in 1967 with then-governor Reagan in Sacramento, California. He became a presidential adviser on January 20, 1981, and was appointed Reagan's attorney general in February 1985.

Meese described to me the TV movie's take on Reagan, AIDS, and gays as "totally unfair, and totally unrepresentative of his views or anything he ever said." Meese, who now chairs the Heritage Foundation's Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, recalls AIDS as a key issue with which Reagan's senior staff grappled.

"I can remember numerous sessions of the domestic-policy council where the surgeon general provided information to us, and the questions were not whether the federal government would get involved, but what would be the best way. There was support for research through the NIH. There also were questions about the extent to which public warnings should be sent out. It was a question of how the public would respond to fairly explicit warnings about fairly explicit things. Ultimately, warnings were sent out."

"As I recall, from 1984 onward - and bear in mind that the AIDS virus was not identified until 1982 - every Reagan budget contained a large sum of money specifically earmarked for AIDS," says Peter Robinson, a former Reagan speechwriter and author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. "Now, people will argue that it wasn't enough," Robinson adds. "But, of course, that's the kind of argument that takes place over every item in the federal budget. Nevertheless, the notion that he was somehow callous or had a cruel or cynical attitude towards homosexuals or AIDS victims is just ridiculous."

In February 1986, President Reagan's blueprint for the next fiscal year stated: "[T]his budget provides funds for maintaining - and in some cases expanding - high priority programs in crucial areas of national interest…including drug enforcement, AIDS research, the space program, nonmilitary research and national security." Reagan's budget message added that AIDS "remains the highest public health priority of the Department of Health and Human Services."

Precise budget requests are difficult to calculate, as online records from the 1980s are spotty. Nevertheless, New York University's archived, hard copies of budget documents from fiscal year 1984 through FY 1989 show that Reagan proposed at least $2.79 billion for AIDS research, education, and treatment. In a Congressional Research Service study titled AIDS Funding for Federal Government Programs: FY1981-FY1999, author Judith Johnson found that overall, the federal government spent $5.727 billion on AIDS under Ronald Reagan. This higher number reflects President Reagan's proposals as well as additional expenditures approved by Congress that he later signed.

Table 5 of Johnson's report shows annual federal AIDS spending during Ronald Reagan's watch. This is hardly the portrait of a do-nothing presidency:

Government Spending on HIV/AIDS
Fiscal Year
$ Millions
% growth over
previous year

Source: Congressional Research Service

Free-marketeers may argue that the federal government should have left AIDS research and care to the private sector. Whether or not one embraces that perspective, no one justifiably can regard Reagan's requested and actual AIDS spending as a gleefully applied death sentence for AIDS sufferers.

Besides, could much have been done with an even larger cash infusion during the infancy of AIDS?

"You could have poured half the national budget into AIDS in 1983, and it would have gone down a rat hole," says Michael Fumento, author of BioEvolution: How Biotechnology Is Changing Our World. "There were no anti-virals back then. The first anti-viral was AZT which came along in 1987, and that was for AIDS." As an example of how blindly scientists and policymakers flew as the virus took wing, Fumento recalls that "in 1984, Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler predicted that there would be an AIDS vaccine by 1986. There is no AIDS vaccine to date."

Reagan also is accused of staying mum about AIDS. According to The Encyclopedia of AIDS: A Social, Political, Cultural, and Scientific Record of the HIV Epidemic, edited by Raymond A. Smith, "Reagan never even mentioned the word 'AIDS' publicly until 1987."

Actually, as official White House papers cited by Steven Hayward, author of the multi-volume Age of Reagan show, the 40th president spoke of AIDS no later than September 17, 1985. Responding to a question on AIDS research, the president said:

[I]ncluding what we have in the budget for '86, it will amount to over a half a billion dollars that we have provided for research on AIDS in addition to what I'm sure other medical groups are doing. And we have $100 million in the budget this year; it'll be 126 million next year. So, this is a top priority with us. Yes, there's no question about the seriousness of this and the need to find an answer.

"Message to the Congress on America's Agenda for the Future," a document President Reagan transmitted to Congress in connection with his February 6, 1986, State of the Union address, included this specific passage that mentions the word "AIDS" five times:

We will continue, as a high priority, the fight against Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). An unprecedented research effort is underway to deal with this major epidemic public health threat. The number of AIDS cases is expected to increase. While there are hopes for drugs and vaccines against AIDS, none is immediately at hand. Consequently, efforts should focus on prevention, to inform and to lower risks of further transmission of the AIDS virus. To this end, I am asking the Surgeon General to prepare a report to the American people on AIDS.

So, AIDS policy aside, was Ronald Reagan a homophobe? Here again, those who know him best just say, "No."

"According to the father is a homophobic Bible-thumper who loudly insisted that his son wasn't gay when Ron took up ballet, and who in a particularly scathing scene told my mother that AIDS patients deserved their fate," wrote Ronald and Nancy Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis, on Time magazine's website. "Not only did my father never say such a thing, he never would have."

In fact, she recalls "the clear, smooth, non-judgmental way" in which her dad discussed the topic of homosexuality with her when she was age eight or nine.

My father and I were watching an old Rock Hudson and Doris Day movie. At the moment when Hudson and Doris Day kissed, I said to my father, "That looks weird."... All I knew was that something about this particular man and woman was, to me, strange. My father gently explained that Mr. Hudson didn't really have a lot of experience kissing women; in fact, he would much prefer to be kissing a man. This was said in the same tone that would be used if he had been telling me about people with different colored eyes, and I accepted without question that this whole kissing thing wasn't reserved just for men and women.

"I remember Reagan telling us that in Hollywood he knew a lot of gays, and he never had any problem with them," says Martin Anderson, a high-level Reagan adviser since 1975, co-editor of Reagan: A Life in Letters, the latest collection of material that Ronald Reagan wrote in his own hand. "I think a number of people who were gay worked for the Reagans," Anderson told me. "We never kept track. But he never said anything even remotely like that comment in the movie. His basic attitude was 'Leave them alone.'"

Reagan publicly demonstrated this outlook when he opposed Proposition 6, a 1978 ballot measure that called for the dismissal of California teachers who "advocated" homosexuality, even outside of schools. Reagan used both a September 24, 1978, statement and a syndicated newspaper column to campaign against the initiative.

"Whatever else it is," Reagan wrote, "homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual's sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child's teachers do not really influence this." He also argued: "Since the measure does not restrict itself to the classroom, every aspect of a teacher's personal life could presumably come under suspicion. What constitutes 'advocacy' of homosexuality? Would public opposition to Proposition 6 by a teacher - should it pass - be considered advocacy?"

That November 7, Proposition 6 lost, 41.6 percent in favor to 58.4 percent against. Reagan's opposition is considered instrumental to its defeat.

"Despite the urging of some of his conservative supporters, he never made fighting homosexuality a cause," wrote Kenneth T. Walsh, former U.S. News and World Report White House correspondent, in his 1997 biography, Ronald Reagan. "In the final analysis, Reagan felt that what people do in private is their own business, not the government's."

But what about the comment in Dutch, Edmund Morris' authorized biography of President Reagan? Morris claimed that Reagan once said about AIDS: "Maybe the Lord brought down this plague," because "illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments." Morris's book is suspect insofar as he deliberately transformed himself into a character, a buddy of sorts, who follows Reagan throughout his career. Did Reagan actually say this, or did Morris also invent that passage in service to a higher "truth?" And even if Reagan said such a thing, there is a huge difference between expressing Biblical beliefs about AIDS's genesis and, as The Reagans originally claimed, condemning AIDS victims to die from their disease and speeding their demise through official negligence.

As much as Reagan evidently has exhibited tolerance of homosexuality in his private life, when it comes to public policy, he opposed the persecution of gays and devoted considerable taxpayer resources to AIDS research and treatment.

Could Reagan have said more about AIDS? Surely, and he might have done so were he less focused on reviving America's moribund economy and peacefully defeating Soviet Communism. Could he have done more? Of course. Who could not have? But the ideas that Ronald Reagan did nothing, or worse, about AIDS and hated gays, to boot, are both tired, left-wing lies about an American legend.

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