The Truth About Reagan And AIDS


last two months I’ve been teaching a course entitled “Plagues
and Politics: The Impact of AIDS on U.S. Culture.” So when
the political flap over the historic accuracy of “The Reagans”—the
CBS mini-series, starring James Brolin and Judy Davis, which was
pulled from the network’s lineup and dumped into their cable
outlet—hit the headlines I was intrigued to see that one of
the main complaints was that the original script (no one has actually
seen the final version of the series) accuses President Reagan of
religious intolerance and prejudice against homosexuals. In a scene
in which Nancy asks Ron to do something to help people with AIDS,
he responds by answering, “Those who live in sin shall die
in sin.”

Egloff, who authored the script, has conceded that Reagan’s
answer is a fictionalized invention and, indeed, Reagan rarely used
religious sentiments or metaphors in political situations. The show’s
critics have made a strong, salient point—having Ronald Reagan
use the language of conservative Christianity to explain why his
Administration did almost nothing for the first seven years of the
AIDS epidemic is historically irresponsible and misleading. 

everything that we can ascertain from the historical record, Reagan’s
religious background, feelings, or beliefs had nothing to do with
his political response to the AIDS epidemic. His appalling policies
led to enormous setbacks for HIV/AIDS science and research, discrimination
against people with AIDS, and the lack of any comprehensive outreach
for prevention or education work, all adding to the already staggering
amount of mounting deaths. His policies on AIDS were a product of
indifference, disdain, self-imposed ignorance, and political capitulation
to a staunchly reactionary and religious Republican constituency
that was to reshape not only the party, but also the state of U.S.

AIDS was first reported in the medical and popular press in 1981,
it was only in October 1987 that President Reagan publicly spoke
about the epidemic. By the end of that year 59,572 AIDS cases had
been reported and 27,909 of those women and men had died. How could
this happen? How could Reagan not say anything? Do anything? 

Reagan administration’s reaction to AIDS is complex and goes
far beyond Reagan’s refusal to speak out about the epidemic.
A great deal of his power base was born-again Christian Republican
conservatives who embraced a reactionary social agenda that included
a virulent, demonizing homophobia. In the media, people like Reverends
Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell portrayed gay people as diseased
sinners and promoted the idea that AIDS was a punishment from God
and that the gay rights movement had to be stopped. In the Republican
Party, zealous right-wingers, such as Representative William Dannenmeyer
(CA) and Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), hammered home this same message.
In the Reagan White House, people such as Secretary of Education
William Bennett and Gary Bauer, his chief domestic advisor, worked
to enact it in the Administration’s policies. 

practical terms this meant AIDS research was chronically underfunded.
When doctors at the Centers for Disease Control and the National
Institute for Health asked for more funding for their work on AIDS,
they were routinely denied it. Between June 1981 and May 1982, the
CDC spent less than $1 million on AIDS, but $9 million on Legionnaire’s
Disease. At that point over 1,000 of the 2,000 AIDS cases reported
resulted in death; there were fewer than 50 deaths from Legionnaire’s
Disease. This drastic lack of funding would continue through the
Reagan years. 

health and support groups in the gay community instigated education
and prevention programs, they were denied federal funding. In October
1987 Jesse Helms amended a federal appropriation bill that prohibited
AIDS education efforts that “encourage or promoted homosexual
activity”(that is, tell gay men how to have safe sex). 

almost all medical opinion spoke out against mandatory HIV testing
(since it would drive those at risk away from being tested) and
the ACLU and Lambda Legal Defense were fighting discrimination against
people with HIV/AIDS, Republicans such as Vice President George
Bush in 1987 and William Dannenmeyer (in a California state referendum
in 1988) called for mandatory HIV testing. 

all of this Ronald Reagan did nothing. When Rock Hudson, a friend
and colleague of the Reagan’s, was diagnosed and died in 1985
(one of the 20,740 cases reported that year), Reagan still did not
speak out. When family friend William F. Buckley, in a March 18,

New York Times

article, called for mandatory
testing of HIV and said that HIV+ gay men should have this information
forcibly tattooed on their buttocks (and IV drug users on their
arms), Reagan said nothing. In 1986 (after five years of complete
silence) when Surgeon General C. Everett Koop released a report
calling for AIDS education in schools, Bennett and Bauer did everything
possible to undercut and prevent funding for Koop’s too-little
too-late initiative. By the end of 1986, 37,061 AIDS cases had been
reported; 16,301 people had died. 

most memorable Reagan AIDS moment was at the 1986 centenary rededication
of the Statue of Liberty. The Reagan’s were there sitting next
to the French Prime Minister and his wife, Francois and Danielle
Mitterrand. 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 Mitterrands
looked appalled. The Reagans were laughing. By the end of 1989,
115,786 women and men had been diagnosed with AIDS in the United
States—more then 70,000 of them had died. 

Republican protest against “The Reagans” is really nothing
more than a grotesque political sideshow with conservatives flexing
their muscles (and threatening an economic boycott) to protect their
version of history. The television miniseries, even one based in
contemporary history, is by its nature a project of interpretation,
a fact that seems to have escaped the protestors. But the irony
is that their complaints about Ronald Regan being branded anti-gay
because of his religious convictions, while wrong, is the generous
interpretation. It is clear that Reagan’s inactions during
the first decade of the AIDS epidemic were due to indifference,
emotional callousness, and greed for political power. In a way,
I agree with those who protested “The Reagans”—CBS
should have told us the truth.

Bronski is an activist and writer. His most recent book is