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The best explanation for Hillary Clinton's bizarre comments about the Reagans and HIV/AIDS

Hillary Clinton campaigns in Florida.
Hillary Clinton campaigns in Florida.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Friday, Hillary Clinton made a bizarre claim about Ronald and Nancy Reagan during the former first lady's funeral: that on HIV/AIDS, they "started a national conversation. When before nobody would talk about it, nobody wanted to do anything about it."

This got the history, as we now know it, completely wrong. Through documents and reviews of the time period, we know the Reagan administration did not care much about HIV/AIDS until years into the epidemic — in large part because it was perceived as a disease that only afflicted gay people. In a particularly brazen example, Reagan's press secretary joked and laughed about HIV and its victims in press conferences.

So it came as little surprise when Clinton walked back her comment in a statement later in the day: "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."

But there's some reason to believe Clinton meant what she said: She was part of a Democratic establishment in the 1980s that was by and large as out of touch with the plight of HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ people as the Reagan administration was at the time. So it's wholly plausible that her recollection of the period genuinely reflected well on the Reagans, at least on this issue.

Garance Franke-Ruta, who was an HIV/AIDS activist during the height of the epidemic, explained in a great series of tweets:

Based on these facts, it's easy to imagine how someone in the political establishment like Clinton could remember a very different version of the Reagans' history on HIV/AIDS. For LGBTQ people and people with HIV at the time, it was a very different — and frankly worse — world at the height of the epidemic. And the establishment that Clinton was part of reflected that.

Watch: How most states still discriminate against LGBTQ people