Ronald Reagan, Homosexuality, and AIDS

Was Reagan slow on addressing this new, mysterious disease?

This turned up in my Google News lists today:

Orange County Gays condemn Ronald Reagan celebrations,[*] by Fernando Palazzo, "Orange County Gay Culture Examiner" (not making that up).

This article is 3 short paragraphs. Paragraph 1 includes this: "Joel Waddell of the Orange County Equality Project says Ronald Reagan ignored Aids [sic] and helped the public perceive homosexuals as awful people." (Emphasis added.) Paragraph 2 is this quote from Waddell:

Ronald Reagan basically laughed at the disease. Many accounts reveal that he thought Homosexuals deserved AIDS because they were engaging in behavior that goes against God’s wishes. Our group, as well as others throughout Southern California, will not forget this.

Paragraph 3, a wishy-washy semi-counter-opinion from some random "graduate student," is someone's idea of "balanced" reporting. I guess, if you're only assigned to "examine" the "culture," and a random grad student's offhand chatter passes for counterbalance, you don't have to worry about little journalistic things like checking up on, for example, citations for those "many accounts." It's enough of a fact that Waddell believes these things.

I suspect Ronald Reagan truly wasn't making AIDS his top priority, what with the Cold War (remember that?) and the economy and all, but I somehow doubt that he was all that instrumental in helping "the public perceive homosexuals as awful people." I'm afraid much of the "homosexual culture" has managed to do that to themselves, and it has nothing to do with their sexual preferences!

Wondering about Reagan's actual statements and stance on AIDS & homosexuality, during his administration especially, I Googled "Ronald Reagan on AIDS homosexuality" and the first several links were all "Why Ronald Reagan's legacy should be vilified, not sanctified," like this one by Allen White at SFGate.[*]

"As America remembers the life of Ronald Reagan," writes White, "it must never forget his shameful abdication of leadership in the fight against AIDS. History may ultimately judge his presidency by the thousands who have and will die [sic] of AIDS." White goes on to condemn Reagan because Falwell said AIDS was a divine punishment and Falwell supported Reagan. Also, Reagan's communications director Pat Buchanan argued that AIDS is "nature's revenge on gay men.'" (Because this is so widely quoted, I really had to do some google-digging to find the original. Still haven't found it, but found this more complete secondary reference:[*] "On AIDS, Buchanan wrote in 1983: 'The poor homosexuals -- they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is extracting an awful retribution (AIDS),'" referenced to the Los Angeles Times, 1986-11-28, and other places, but can't find the original yet. Still digging. Buchanan's attitudes about homosexuality aside, just as a stand-alone comment, that actually seems an unfortunate but factual assessment of common liberal denial of association between personal behaviors and medical consequences.)

White's article goes on to describe the rapid early rise of AIDS, and Reagan's continuing "silence" as deaths mount.

Writing in the Washington Post in late 1985, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, stated: "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. ... Dr. C. Everett Koop, Reagan's surgeon general, has said that because of "intradepartmental politics" he was cut out of all AIDS discussions for the first five years of the Reagan administration. The reason, he explained, was "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.'"

Was Reagan slow on addressing this new, mysterious disease with the obvious primary spread pattern of (let's face it) unsanitary personal habits? Did he fail to rebuke homophobic voices inside and outside his administration? Did he fail to throw massive federal funding at the disease? It's always easy to say what someone should have done, could have done, ought to have done, in retrospect. I still don't see this as Reagan himself having the kind of "let them die, they deserve it, the scum" attitude which seems still to be attributed to him. "How profoundly different might have been the outcome if his leadership had generated compassion rather than hostility." Maybe. Had he been able to move more quickly. Or, possibly, we would see that today, despite all we've learned, all we've researched, and all we've spent, we are still nearly clueless on how to combat this intriguing and invalubably educational disorder.

It is unfortunate that the construction of voices and events can justify the argument that Reagan was "hostile." There were enough Falwells in there, it's true. However, the real problem is that conservatism is indeed innately "hostile" to the liberal propensity to start throwing massive tax dollars at everything one thinks is wrong in society. In a purely libertarian perspective, health research isn't even the proper province of government!

Whereas, for liberals, the well is bottomless, for conservatism, the budget must be considered. "Despite Reagan's stated desire to cut spending, federal spending grew during his administration. However, economist Milton Friedman pointed out that non-defense spending as a percentage of national income stabilized throughout Reagan's term, breaking a long upward trend; the number of new regulations added each year dramatically decreased as well." -Wikipedia[*]

Even if providing funding, there is the related budgetary decision of setting up specialized ad_hoc bureacracies and facilities for such purposes, or just boosting funding for existing researchers, a move less politically dramatic but scientifically sensible. That's what Reagan seems to have done, as I discovered in this article by Deroy Murdock.[*]

What we have in the fertile imaginations of so many is a fantasized demon Reagan:

"Ronnie, say something," Nancy pleaded. The president coolly maintained his silence. He never even looked at his beloved First Lady.

That's how Showtime Sunday night depicted a scene from the White House residence in The Reagans, the controversial TV movie about the conservative chief executive and his devoted wife. Reagan's alleged homophobia and indifference to AIDS patients are among the reasons Reaganites attacked the program, leading CBS to cancel its broadcast premiere and shift it instead to Showtime, the network's sister pay-cable channel.

The original script was far worse.

"Those who live in sin will die in sin," says President Reagan, as portrayed by actor James Brolin. Teleplaywright Elizabeth Egloff eventually admitted she had no evidence on which to base this scandalous comment. "We know he ducked the issue over and over again," she told the New York Times in self-defense.

The author quotes long-time Reagan pal and one-time Atty Gen Edwin Meese saying he "recalls AIDS as a key issue with which Reagan's senior staff grappled."

"I can remember numerous sessions of the domestic-policy council where the surgeon general provided information to us, and the questions were not whether the federal government would get involved, but what would be the best way. There was support for research through the NIH. There also were questions about the extent to which public warnings should be sent out. It was a question of how the public would respond to fairly explicit warnings about fairly explicit things. Ultimately, warnings were sent out."

"As I recall, from 1984 onward — and bear in mind that the AIDS virus was not identified until 1982 — every Reagan budget contained a large sum of money specifically earmarked for AIDS," says Peter Robinson, a former Reagan speechwriter and author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. "Now, people will argue that it wasn't enough," Robinson adds. "But, of course, that's the kind of argument that takes place over every item in the federal budget. Nevertheless, the notion that he was somehow callous or had a cruel or cynical attitude towards homosexuals or AIDS victims is just ridiculous."

Allen White wrote, "Reagan would ultimately address the issue of AIDS while president. His remarks came May 31, 1987 (near the end of his second term), at the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington. When he spoke, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and 20,849 had died. The disease had spread to 113 countries, with more than 50,000 cases."

But Murdock's article counters, "New York University's archived, hard copies of budget documents from fiscal year 1984 through FY 1989 show that Reagan proposed at least $2.79 billion for AIDS research, education, and treatment. In a Congressional Research Service study titled AIDS Funding for Federal Government Programs: FY1981-FY1999, author Judith Johnson found that overall, the federal government spent $5.727 billion on AIDS under Ronald Reagan. This higher number reflects President Reagan's proposals as well as additional expenditures approved by Congress that he later signed."

Look at his chart of the allocation of six thousand million dollars for AIDS from 1982-1989, look at the rate of increase!

As Murdock writes,

Free-marketeers may argue that the federal government should have left AIDS research and care to the private sector. Whether or not one embraces that perspective, no one justifiably can regard Reagan's requested and actual AIDS spending as a gleefully applied death sentence for AIDS sufferers.

Besides, could much have been done with an even larger cash infusion during the infancy of AIDS?

"You could have poured half the national budget into AIDS in 1983, and it would have gone down a rat hole," says Michael Fumento, author of BioEvolution: How Biotechnology Is Changing Our World. "There were no anti-virals back then. The first anti-viral was AZT which came along in 1987, and that was for AIDS." As an example of how blindly scientists and policymakers flew as the virus took wing, Fumento recalls that "in 1984, Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler predicted that there would be an AIDS vaccine by 1986. There is no AIDS vaccine to date."

This article also cites when Reagan first publicly addressed the issue ("no later than September 17, 1985") and the extensive passage where Reagan mentioned AIDS by name five times and called it a "major epidemic public health threat" in his February 6, 1986, State of the Union address.

And as for the old homophobe image? The touching story of daddy Reagan explaining homosexuality to Patti while watching a Rock Hudson-Doris Day kiss is just wonderful. And pure Reagan. How anyone could think the man could have made his career in Hollywood and hated gays is beyond me! The article recalls how Reagan's stern and principled opposition to Proposition 6, a 1978 ballot measure that called for the dismissal of California teachers who "advocated" homosexuality, even outside of schools, was instrumental in the proposition's defeat. Seems to me, these positions of Reagan's were not based on religious dogma or social prejudice but on the same simple American principles he always espoused, as the Murdock article quotes Kenneth T. Walsh, from his 1997 biography, Ronald Reagan, "In the final analysis, Reagan felt that what people do in private is their own business, not the government's."

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