American culture is obsessed with legacy, and in this whirlwind election process, it's important to look at the whole picture before praising an influential person's contributions, especially in the realm of politics.
When Nancy Reagan died last week, most news outlets reacted with widespread fanfare: recaps of the former First Lady's best fashion looks, unnecessarily in-depth coverage of memorials, her funeral escort, and so on. Now, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has singled out the late Mrs. Reagan for praise, for starting "a national conversation [on AIDS] when before, nobody would talk about it, nobody wanted to do anything about it."
Unfortunately, Mrs. Clinton could not be more wrong. An enlightened and truly blistering article published this week in Teen Vogue uncovers just how little the White House did —legislatively, in terms of PR, or otherwise— in the face of this mounting epidemic, even though the administration was made aware of the disease as early as 1981-2. There is even appalling evidence (video below) that the Reagan administration made light of the issue at press conferences, while at the same time, the CDC was estimating the disease to reach epidemic proportions.
In recent years, it has come to light that Ronald Reagan's deteriorating mental state —he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1994 but may very well have started his mental decline during his presidency— meant a larger reach for his wife in terms of influence and power. And Nancy actively resisted any public statement on the AIDS issue until her husband's second presidential term, which resulted in an alarmingly protracted silence from her and her husband on the matter.
It wasn't until the AIDS-related death of iconic (and closeted) movie star Rock Hudson in 1985 that the Reagans knew something had to be said. Like her husband, Nancy got her start as a contract actor for the Hollywood film studios in the 1950s, and Hudson was a close friend of the First Couple. But when Rock reached out to the White House in his 11th hour, hoping his powerful friends could help him transfer to a different hospital in order to receive treatment, Mrs. Reagan rebuffed him.
Other reports bring up further blunders made by the Reagan Administration, like a $10 million cut in AIDS spending in the federal budget proposal released in February 1985 —even though more than 5,000 AIDS-related deaths had by then been documented.
It took the concerted efforts of many players in both Washington, Hollywood and New York City—as depicted in Larry Kramer's searing testimonial of the era, The Normal Heart—to finally get the ball rolling for true activism and advocacy around AIDS, and in turn, for the President and his wife to finally become involved in actions against the disease. But as we all know, it was too little, too late, as the epidemic grew to become a major part of the country's —and the world's— consciousness well into the '90s and the new millennium.
As a quick post-mortem, Hillary has shown yet again her ability to admit her mistakes, this time in record time:
Hillary Clinton’s statement on her comments about the Reagans' record on HIV and AIDS: pic.twitter.com/RtIs0zpJfk
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) March 11, 2016