Hillary Clinton’s epic gaffe — if that’s what it was — in which she praised Ronald and Nancy Reagan for their efforts related to AIDS in the 1980s inspired an immediate and deserved backlash over the weekend.
“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s,” Clinton told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “And 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 anything to do with it.”
AIDS activists, including Larry Kramer and Peter Staley among many others, leapt in to remind Clinton that it was Reagan’s cruel indifference and criminal neglect that drove the mounting death toll in the ‘80s. Reagan did not deliver a speech on AIDS until 1987. By then, 40,000 people had already died, most of them society’s castoffs (gays, drug users, Haitians), that the Reagans didn’t give a shit about.
All the privileged gays walking the aisle at over-the-top weddings today stand on the shoulders of a generation of gay men who died at the hands of an uncaring government. Our history is not taught in schools. Those of us who survived those dark hours must ensure that younger generations understand what happened, lest we be doomed to repeat it. We cannot let politicians rewrite that history.
This is not some arcane ancient tale — it’s 30 years ago. Clinton was there at the height of the epidemic, landing in the White House in the early ‘90s, before protease inhibitors began decreasing the death toll. Later, as a U.S. senator, Clinton voted for the creation of PEPFAR. As secretary of state, she spearheaded efforts toward an “AIDS-free generation.” She spoke at the 2012 International AIDS Conference. The Clinton Foundation works to combat HIV/AIDS in low-income nations via the Clinton Health Access Initiative, founded in 2002.
Given her laudable involvement in the fight against HIV/AIDS, it’s inconceivable that she didn’t know about the sorry Reagan record or the LGBT community’s widespread and justified hatred of President Reagan.
So what explains her reprehensible comments? Her gay supporters worked overtime on social media this weekend minimizing the incident, dismissing the whole thing as Clinton’s “exhaustion” or suggesting she merely “misspoke.” They say she deserves a pass, because, well, the Republicans are so much worse.
Did she misspeak? Or were her comments a calculated pivot toward an expected general election contest against Donald Trump? Praising the Reagans is a good way to curry favor with conservative voters repulsed by Trump’s racism and xenophobia.
We don’t know because she didn’t address it in her lengthy statement on the matter released only after a glib Twitter apology made matters far worse. The Blade has requested an interview with Clinton to clarify what happened but, so far, the campaign hasn’t responded.
Some good has emerged in the wake of the controversy. Clinton, for the first time, called on states to reform HIV criminalization laws, a welcome and long overdue policy statement. She also advocated for expanding access to PrEP and called on Republican governors to extend Medicaid to those with HIV/AIDS.
These are important steps and she deserves credit for backing up her apology with concrete policy initiatives.
But the incident underscores an ongoing problem Clinton has with rewriting history, particularly as it relates to the LGBT community. No one disputes that she’s an ally today. And we all know she was woefully late to the marriage party. We can and should forgive that and move on from marriage.
But AIDS is different. It’s the third rail. We can’t allow distortions or outright lies in the retelling of that story.
Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.