I stumbled on this impressive effort to chronicle what is for many of us the real legacy of Ronald Reagan by a young film school student, Joah Colby-Milbrath. In the narration he says his mom is a lesbian, and she selected his name at the Names Project. His moms must be proud.
The Names Project was started by Cleve Jones and others to memorialize some of the thousands of lives lost to AIDS. The Quilt was first displayed on October 11, 1987 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It covered a space larger than a football field and included 1,920 panels. It was a massive, physical embodiment of the many dead who were forgotten, ignored and overlooked by the larger culture at the time. It was too beautiful, poignant, and big to be ignored. Well, by most. Half a million people visited the Quilt that weekend. The President of the United States was not among them.
Flashback to 1982 and we find the first public mention in the Reagan White House of the crisis that would become known as AIDS. From The Body:
The following press conference is the first public mention of AIDS in the Reagan White House. At that time 200 Americans had died of a new infectious disease. Reagan himself did not mention AIDS for three more years. [Note: other sources say five, citing 1987.--Clarknt67]
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
Press Briefing by Larry Speakes
October 15, 1982
The Briefing Room
Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement -- the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
Mr. Speakes: What's AIDS?
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.
This transcript was quoted at the beginning of Jon Cohen's book, Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine, 2001. ISSN # 1052-4207
Copyright 2004 by John S. James. Permission granted for noncommercial reproduction, provided that our address and phone number are included if more than short quotations are used.
Contagious epidemics are a great source of humor, apparently. At least when it's just gay people that are dying. If only such attitudes stopped at the White House gates. Unfortunately, unlike the economic prosperity of the times, these attitudes seem to have very effectively trickled down.
Speakes knows nothing about the nascent epidemic. The question however, was no doubt prompted by the administration's own Center for Disease Control releasing a report four months earlier and featured on the NBC Nightly News, (1982 video well worth checking out). 413 cases had been identified, a third of them had died, it was non-responsive to treatment, progressive and it was believed to be infectious.
Donald Moffett: He Kills Me, 1987, poster. From a touring art exhibit Act-Up New York.
Three years later, writing in the Washington Post, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, postulated on the continued silence:
"It is surprising that the president could remain silent as 6,000 Americans died, that he could fail to acknowledge the epidemic's existence. Perhaps his staff felt he had to, since many of his New Right supporters have raised money by campaigning against homosexuals."
Reagan's surgeon general at the time, Dr. C. Everett Koop, is quoted in the San Fancisco Gate blaming "intradepartmental politics" for the non-response. He claims he was cut out of all AIDS discussions for the first five years of the administration,
"because transmission of AIDS was understood to be primarily in the homosexual population and in those who abused intravenous drugs." The president's advisers, Koop said, "took the stand, 'They are only getting what they justly deserve.'"
Jeff Sharlet in his first book on The Family, described how Doug Coe, already well-ensconced in the DC and The Ford White House, "went on to build friendships between the Reagan administration" and influenced administration positions on El Salvador. Reagan attended The Family's National Prayer Breakfast, in 1981, and ironically referred to the "single footprints in the sand" parable, expressing his certainty he'd need to be carried at times during his Presidency, by one greater than he. A career in Hollywood is surely good training ground for discretion, he was otherwise low-key about his involvement with the group:
"I wish I could say more about it," Ronald Reagan publicly demurred back in 1985, "but it’s working precisely because it is private."
The mountain comes to Reagan. The President broke his silence in late 1987 at the International Conference on AIDS in Washington. When he spoke, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and 20,849 had died (nearly five times the total servicemembers we've lost in Iraq thus far). The disease had spread to 113 countries.
His awakening also followed the arrival of an activist group known as the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. ACT-UP staged spectacular, and widely criticized, civil disobedience actions including a disruption at the New York Stock Exchange in March 1987 where 100 people were arrested, and a blockade closing the Oakland Bay Bridge during rush hour in 1989.
A closer parsing of some of Reagan's 1987 remarks indicates that rather than challenge a nation to seek education or their missing compassion, they are crafted to reassure his Fundamentalist base that he still has the radical homosexual agenda under control. From Act-Up New York:
After years of negligent silence, President Ronald Reagan finally uses the word "AIDS" in public. He sided with his Education Secretary William Bennett and other conservatives who said the Government should not provide sex education information.
On April 2, 1987, Reagan said:
"How that information is used must be up to schools and parents, not government. But let's be honest with ourselves, AIDS information can not be what some call 'value neutral.' After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don't medicine and morality teach the same lessons."
Reverend Richard Cizik (National Association of Evangelicals) told NPR:
"Well, it started early on in the campaign, when then-candidate Ronald Reagan said to evangelicals, he said, 'You can't endorse me, but I'll endorse you.' And that was the start of a love affair between evangelicals and Ronald Reagan."
Even as late as 1991, Reagan friend and confidant Billy Graham, was still expressing the sentiment that AIDS was God's judgement on the wicked. A prevailing perspective in conservative circles was that AIDS was "killing all the right people," not infrequently expressed explicitly with those very words.
The Religious Right's overture into electoral politics big leagues was only emboldened by the validation of a warm Presidential embrace, a tradition that continues shamelessly to this day.
And God's bullies haven't back off a bit.
They are still successfully erasing the gay community and silencing their attempts to commemorate the experience of the AIDS crisis. Last month--January 2011--Smithsonian censored AIDS crisis-era artist David Wojnarowicz's work"Fire In My Belly" from the exhibit Hide/Seek currently being shown at the Institution's Portrait Gallery. Shame on Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough for buckling to the Catholic League and religious bigots, who lobbied against Wojnarowicz's work saying:
Shame on anyone who under-appreciates the dangerous and cancerous effect of mollifying these hateful, religious extremists as Clough and the Smithsonian have.
And shame on anyone that blithely edits out this inexcusable chapter of "Saint Ronnie's" legacy. Reagan failed. He failed to hear the cries to provide desperately-needed leadership and resources.
And Reagan failed her heed the call of the Messiah he professed to follow. Jesus Christ is said to have challenged his disciples:
And as you go, preach, saying, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food.--Matthew 10:7-10
What words would Christ have for man such as Reagan, who lived in splendor and turned a deaf ear to so much suffering?
Protesters at the 1988 AIDS conference.
Hopefully, history will remember Reagan for his failure to be the President of all Americans. I know I sure the Hell do.