In an appearance on MSNBC Friday afternoon, Hillary Clinton found herself in a situation that called for her to say some nice things about the recently deceased former first lady Nancy Reagan, and she made the somewhat odd choice to highlight HIV/AIDS advocacy. According to Clinton, "Because of both President and Mrs. Reagan — in particular Mrs. Reagan — we started a national conversation. When before nobody would talk about it, nobody wanted to do anything about it."
Clinton described Reagan's role as "very effective low-key advocacy" and "something that I really appreciated."
Hillary Clinton: The Reagans, particularly Nancy, helped start "a national conversation" about HIV and AIDS. https://t.co/7sZp8X53fb— MSNBC (@MSNBC) March 11, 2016
This is, to say the least, not the usual take on AIDS and the Reagan administration that one hears from the LGBT community or from people who were involved in AIDS activism at the time.
While I respect her advocacy on issues like stem cell & Parkinson's research, Nancy Reagan was, sadly, no hero in the fight against HIV/AIDS— Chad Griffin (@ChadHGriffin) March 11, 2016
The much more common view is that the Reagan administration downplayed and ignored a growing public health crisis because the president didn't want to be seen as helping gay people. As Igor Volsky wrote in 2011:
Dr. C. Everett Koop, Reagan’s surgeon general, later explained that "intradepartmental politics" kept Reagan 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.'"
Indeed, as Chris Geidner detailed at length in a February 2015 BuzzFeed article, Nancy Reagan went so far as to ignore pleas for help from her friend Rock Hudson, the closeted gay movie star who died of AIDS in the mid-eighties. The Advocate named Reagan 1985's Homophobe of the Year for his refusal to address the crisis.
After facing strong waves of criticism online for a couple of hours, Clinton apologized, offering the following statement:
While the Reagans were strong advocates for stem cell research and finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease, I misspoke about their record on HIV and AIDS. For that, I'm sorry.
Most likely she had in mind reports that inside the context of the Reagan administration, Nancy was from the faction that eventually pushed the president to do something.
Nancy was helpful on AIDS ... by Reagan administration standards
What does seem to be true is that when the Reagan administration eventually did decide to respond to the AIDS crisis, Nancy Reagan was among the influential administration figures pushing for that decision.
"I think that she deserves credit for opening up the AIDS money," historian Allida Black told PBS in 2011, saying that along with Koop the first lady pressed the president and the secretary of health and human services to allocate research funding to HIV/AIDS issues.
"But," Black continued, "I could never say that without saying they never would have waited this long" if not for the perception that the disease was a problem for gay men.
In the same PBS segment, Nancy's son, Ron Reagan, likewise portrays his mother as an important progressive force on AIDS issues inside the Reagan administration.
The Reagan administration was horrible on AIDS
Identifying Nancy Reagan as a progressive force inside the Reagan administration on AIDS may be accurate, but it's also setting the bar profoundly low. The reason there was no national conversation on AIDS before the Reagan administration is that literally nobody had ever been diagnosed with AIDS before Reagan took office.
When AIDS was initially identified in the early 1980s, a range of public officials stepped into action. As Laura Helmuth wrote in 2014:
Some people did behave nobly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was on it from the very beginning, with research, new surveillance programs, and prompt and clear updates and reports. A year after the first recognition of AIDS, Rep. Henry Waxman held a congressional hearing on the crisis and directed AIDS funding to the National Institutes of Health. (We’re really going to miss that guy when he retires at the end of this term.) The surgeon general pushed for sex education and mailed a frank report to every household in the country on how AIDS is and isn’t transmitted. San Francisco established new clinics and a model for how to care for AIDS patients. The Shanti Project, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, ACT UP, and other groups advocated for better treatment, faster testing, and more funding. People cared for the sick and dying. Afterward they sewed panels for the AIDS Quilt, the most heartbreaking memorial in the history of human civilization.
During these early years of the crisis, the White House's main reaction was to literally laugh off questions about whether anything should be done. Here's a 1982 exchange between a journalist and White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes:
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.
By 1985, Reagan finally said the word "AIDS" in response to a question at a press conference, and in 1987 he addressed it in a speech. Those small concessions, as well as some funding for research into the disease, came as a result of tireless advocacy and activism work from a range of groups that eventually forced the White House's hand.
Nancy Reagan was, it seems, relatively more open to those activists' arguments than many other key players in the Reagan administration. But the fact that Clinton would point to Ronald and Nancy Reagan as leaders on a national conversation around AIDS, rather than to the activists themselves, is revealing of her insider perspective on social change.