Thursday, June 10, 2004

I really haven't commented on Ronald Reagan's death, because I have very conflicting feelings. Twenty years ago, I was a little Reaganite, and I still think he did some positive things for the world. I may no longer follow the same philosophical path, but I still have the perspective of someone who came of age in the late 1970s, when the world was quite a bit different. And so was I.

But I resent the fact that a lot of people -- including some bloggers who I generally respect (and therefore decline to name here) -- have been spending the few days since Reagan's death trying to whitewash his entire administration.

First of all: give me a break. God did not select Ronald Reagan to be president. He was just a human being, and therefore capable of minor missteps and grave errors.

Secondly, some things are inexcusable. Case in point, the Reagan Administration's shameful record on HIV and AIDS. So please stop trying to excuse them.

With the exception of a minor Comments dust-up over at BoiFromTroy's place the other day, I was going to leave the AIDS issue alone. Engaging in a pissing contest over something that happened more than two decades ago strikes me as a bit futile... and, more to the point, it won't change a damned thing. But I was slumming a short time ago at Andrew Sullivan's blog, where he had posted an excerpt from the transcript of a 1982 press conference, and... Well, let's just go to the tape:
Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
Q: Over a third of them 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?
MR. SPEAKES: I don't have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don't.
MR. SPEAKES: You didn't answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President ...
MR. SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)
Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I don't know anything about it, Lester.
Q: Does the President, does anyone in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: I don't think so. I don't think there's been any ...
Q: Nobody knows?
MR. SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.
Q: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping ...
MR. SPEAKES: I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he's had no - (laughter) - no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.
Q: The President doesn't have gay plague, is that what you're saying or what?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I didn't say that.
Q: Didn't say that?
MR. SPEAKES: I thought I heard you on the State Department over there. Why didn't you stay there? (Laughter.)
Q: Because I love you Larry, that's why (Laughter.)
MR. SPEAKES: Oh I see. Just don't put it in those terms, Lester. (Laughter.)
Q: Oh, I retract that.
MR. SPEAKES: I hope so.
Q: It's too late.

Funny, right? That Larry Speakes cracks me up every time.

Hundreds of Americans were dying at the time, and the White House thought it was funny. Tens of thousands would be infected before the Reagan Administration took note. Can you believe that tens of thousands of Americans -- closer to a hundred thousand, in truth -- were dead or dying, and couldn't get the serious attention of their government? Couldn't get the leader of their nation to even make a comment until the epidemic had raged for years? Unbelievable.

That's a monumental failure of leadership, and there's no way to excuse Ronald Reagan. His lack of urgency as the numbers rose -- 600... 10,000... 50,000... more -- demonstrated a disregard of the health and well-being of American citizens.

Yes, the world is a different place than it was twenty years ago. Twenty years ago, a second-term President Carter may have been every bit as ineffectual as Reagan in responding to the AIDS epidemic. Twenty years ago, your television set wasn't dripping with gay characters. Twenty years ago, it was sadly easy for many political leaders to ignore anything associated with homosexuality. If you must justify and defend Reagan's actions (or, I should say, inactions), do it through that historical prism.

But please don't rewrite history. His record on AIDS was very, very bad, and people paid for that indifference with their lives. You can whitewash, but you'll never be able to lay it on thick enough to cover that up.