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Was Hillary Clinton's HIV/AIDS Apology Essay Enough?

AP/Hillary Clinton

When the bar to be better than the Republicans is set this low, it's hard to bring your A-game.

Much has already been said about Hillary Clinton's cataclysmically wrong and hurtful praise of the Reagans -- Nancy "in particular" -- for "very effective low-key advocacy" of HIV/AIDS research and treatment. The most interesting and pertinent response came, of course, from the woman herself.

Just two hours into the firestorm of backlash after making the comments, Clinton released remarks that ended with "I misspoke about their record on HIV and AIDS. For that, I'm sorry." That apology was lambasted as tepid -- rightfully -- and so, a few hours later, she took to Medium to pen an 800-word essay on the fight against HIV and AIDS so cloyingly shoutout-laden that it includes the phrase "Silence = Death."

In the essay, she noted she has lost friends and loved ones to AIDS, celebrated the historic presence of HIV-positive speakers at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, talked about how she would "strategize and coordinate efforts" with world leaders as First Lady, voted for various AIDS research bills as senator, and was part of the Obama administration's broad push for an AIDS-free generation in her time as Secretary of State. Although she didn't mention this, she's also been to hundreds of gay rights galas and fundraisers. She included the line: "This issue matters to me deeply."

As a gay man, it's confusing to me that she could've been such an early and strident defender of HIV/AIDS awareness and research while simultaneously supporting Don't Ask Don't Tell (until 1999 at any rate), the Defense of Marriage Act, workplace discrimination, and the FDA's ban on blood donations from sexually active gay men. How does anyone care so deeply and extensively about gay Americans, but only when they're sick?

That's just the problem. How is it possible for a person to have been involved in the HIV/AIDS conversation so deeply, in so many ways, for so many years without--even just osmotically--absorbing the basic, entry-level common knowledge that the Reagans were willfully ignorant about the plague and only ever cared about it when it affected children, who they thought of as innocents (as opposed to guilty-by-definition gays)?

And not just any old person! Hillary Clinton! The presidential candidate who prides herself on Day One readiness, on 3 a.m. readiness, on the kind of readiness that makes her flaunt her 11-hour congressional grilling.

How does someone that ready and that experienced flub something as mundane as a state funeral? That seemed to be the overwhelming sense of people's anger and confusion over the weekend. She did not misspeak. Misspeaking is saying the wrong karaoke lyrics, it's absent-mindedly introducing your newlywed husband as your boyfriend or fiance, it's saying "President Barack Osama." After four minutes of innocuous praise, one does not tend to enter into 40 seconds of misspeaking, as Clinton did, with the line "the other point I wanted to make, too."

But, in honesty and in fairness, sometimes misspeakers themselves don't know the how. The question to ask a misspeaker is: Okay, so what is it that you were trying to say?

What was Clinton trying to say? She clearly wanted to be sure that the conversation steered towards HIV/AIDS, as she introduced the topic without any prompting by her interviewer, Andrea Mitchell (who notably didn't interrupt Clinton with a "Really? I've never heard that before"). But why bring up AIDS at all while eulogizing Nancy Reagan? Why would anyone inject a funeral with one of the deceased's most shameful moments? Forty seconds is a long time for a sustained lapse in judgment.

It's the same ignorance to toxicity that has seen Clinton extolling the merits of fracking, which pollutes water, at a presidential debate in Flint, Michigan, a town now synonymous with polluted water. It's the same baffling behavior that saw her defend exorbitant speaking fees for Goldman Sachs by saying "that's what they offered"--as if Clinton does not charge a transactional speaking fee of her own making. This kind of tin-ear to the public mood is not reserved for Clinton: Sanders just had to issue "clarifying remarks" for misspeaking about race and "the ghetto."

A related point here is that, to varying degrees, Clinton has been a public figure for four decades. Yes, maybe she came too slowly to gay marriage, but so did half the people at your Thanksgiving table. All the Broad City cameos and "yassss kween" cheerleading won't belie the fact that she is straight and old. She would tie for oldest elected president. President Barack Obama won't be her age until 2029. How many old straight women are writing essays on Medium about PrEP? Even as she is pilloried for being typical of her generation, her detractors should take a sobering moment to realize how typical she is of Straight America broadly. In most of America, even in 2016, "AIDS awareness" means Rent or, for the very serious, The Normal Heart.

Across the board, this has been a disappointing and frustrating election. The right has descended from compassionate conservatism to bigotry, xenophobia, fisticuffs, and penis-bragging. But the Republicans' implosion has damaged, by extension of the parity of a two-party system, the Democrats as well, who can now freely bill themselves simply as Better Than The KKK. Clinton and Sanders can misspeak all they want. They're never going to stumble upon language as gleefully chaotic and inflammatory as the prepared remarks from Cruz or Trump.

There will be more misspeaking. Much more. Not because Clinton or Sanders are ignorant or inexperienced or hurtful or pandering, but rather because, when the bar to be better than the Republicans is set this low, it's hard to bring your A-game. It's sad, because if the next U.S. president is going to be the first-ever female leader of the free world, it'd've been a lot more meaningful if she defeated a very capable and sensible opponent. As it is, faced with ugliness as unapologetic as Cruz and Trump, apologizing is one way to look presidential. But not too much! Welcome to the era of very effective low-key apology. For that, I'm sorry.

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