March 11, 2016 at 4:45 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Clinton apologizes for praising Nancy Reagan’s HIV efforts
Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, gay news, Washington Blade, Democratic Primary

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Photo by 1photo; courtesy Bigstock)

Hillary Clinton has apologized for remarks praising President Reagan and Nancy Reagan for starting a “national conversation” on HIV/AIDS — a recollection she made earlier on Friday deemed untrue and offensive by those who remember the height of the epidemic.

The Democratic presidential candidate issued the apology on Twitter hours after she made her controversial remarks, which generated backlash among HIV activists.

“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,” Clinton said. “For that, I am sorry.”

Clinton stirred controversy — and even anger — among HIV activists for her remarks on MSNBC as part of coverage of the funeral for the former first lady, which took place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Los Angeles.

“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 said. “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 to do anything about it. And that too is something that I really appreciate with her very effective low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience and people began to say, ‘Hey, we have to do something about this, too.'”

Among those criticizing Clinton on Twitter was New York-based gay rights and HIV activist Peter Staley, who said on Facebook Clinton would have lost his vote based on those remarks if he were a single-issue voter.

“Thank god I’m not a single issue voter, or she would have lost my vote with this insulting and farcical view of early AIDS history,” Staley said.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, took the rare step of criticizing Clinton’s remarks on Twitter — although he didn’t explicitly name the candidate.

David Mixner, a longtime gay Democratic activist, also voiced objection on Twitter and was succinct in his criticism in an e-mail to the Washington Blade.

Of Clinton’s recollection a “national conversation” was started by Nancy Reagan, Mixner said, “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

HIV/AIDS ravaged the gay community throughout the 1980s until medications were found and distributed to treat the disease in the 1990s. A report in the Associated Press published in the aftermath Nancy Reagan’s death at 94 found HIV activists remain angry about President Reagan’s response to HIV/AIDS. Although perception of Nancy Reagan’s role is mixed, many are angry at her as well for inaction as the epidemic raged.

According to the AP, Reagan didn’t make an early push to fund expanded medical research and didn’t make his first public comments about AIDS until 1987. By that more time, more than 20,000 Americans had died. Meanwhile, although Nancy Reagan had gay friends, she didn’t speak out publicly about AIDS, nor did she leave a documented record of pressing her husband on the issue early in the crisis, the AP reported.

In an April 1987 speech, Reagan’s solution to addressing the AIDS crisis was to urge young people to abstain from sex in a speech to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. In the same speech, Reagan said he was determined to find a cure for HIV/AIDS, comparing efforts to find a cure to the Carthaginians in antiquity finding a way to cross the Alps to invade Rome.

“But let’s be honest with ourselves,” Reagan said. “AIDS information cannot be what some call value neutral. After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?”

A widely circulated report by Buzzfeed reveals that Nancy Reagan offered no help to closeted actor Rock Hudson when he was dying of AIDS in Paris in 1985 and requested assistance from the first lady to get access to treatment. She responded she felt the White House shouldn’t get involved and referred Hudson to the U.S. embassy.

Clinton, during her tenure as secretary of state, called for achieving an “AIDS-free generation.” During her speech before the 2012 International AIDS Conference in D.C., Clinton announced her plans for a blueprint to stop the disease across the globe, and said the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, was a success.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • We would never stand for @ChadHunterGriffin not naming the candidate who made the remark in any other instance.

  • Nancy Reagan didn’t even care about stem cell research until Ronnie got Alzheimer’s. Just like she didn’t care about AIDS until her hairdresser got sick. It was only when it affected her personally that she did something.

    • That’s simply not accurate:

      “For the record, Reagan first mentioned AIDS, in response to a question at a press conference, on Sept. 17, 1985. On Feb. 5, 1986, he made a surprise visit to the Department of Health and Human Services where he said, “One of our highest public health priorities is going to be continuing to find a cure for AIDS.” He also announced that he’d tasked Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to prepare a major report on the disease. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, Reagan dragged Koop into AIDS policy, not the other way around.

      “The administration increased AIDS funding requests from $8 million in 1982 to $26.5 million in 1983, which Congress bumped to $44 million, a number that doubled every year thereafter during Reagan’s presidency.”

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      Reagan was not the social conservative that some liberals and conservatives paint him to be. His son Ron and daughter Patty both believe that their dad would have favored equal marriage had he lived and had a clear mind when it finally happened.

        • No one gets serious policy statements on controversial issues from the Press Secretary. That’s all about the politics of politics. Reagan got into office by playing patty-cake with the social conservatives. The fact that he doubled and doubled again the funding for AIDS research was what really mattered. Right now, Hillary Clinton is trying hard to distance herself from her own support of DOMA back when the best her husband could do for the LGBT community was Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Times evolved and so did people of good conscience. It’s the social Neanderthals who push back against social progress. Reagan did more for the LGBT community than most GOP then or now. Was it enough? Probably not, but he did what he could given his party and the times. Obviously, a Democrat would have done more, which is why none of the current GOP is the right choice in 2016.

  • I don’t mind the hillary made a mistake, but what does bother me is that hillary apparently doesn’t know anything of the political context of hiv in the 1980s and the tremendous suffering that went on during that time. Had she known about that there’s no way she could have misspoke

    • What bothers me most is that the Reagans have been so deified and mythologized that even Democrats have to bend over backwards to feign praise for them and I wish supposed progressives would stop it.

  • Hillary is not a generous tipper. That says it all.

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