Hillary Clinton has apologized — once on Twitter, again in an op-ed saying she “made a mistake” — after controversial remarks in which she praised Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s HIV efforts, but observers still question why she made the comments in the first place.
Although Clinton took the opportunity of her gaffe to outline a plan to achieve an “AIDS-free generation,” she never explained why she said during Nancy Reagan’s funeral that the first lady and President Reagan started a “national conversation” on HIV/AIDS — a recollection deemed untrue and offensive by those who remember the height of the epidemic.
Moreover, the Clinton campaign, which has consistently rebuffed requests by the Washington Blade to interview the candidate, hasn’t responded to additional requests to interview Clinton to seek an explanation for the gaffe.
“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 on Friday. “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.”
Speculation about why Clinton made the comments ranges widely. Some say she’s trying to curry favor with Reagan Democrats ahead of the general election; others posit she mixed up Nancy Reagan’s record on HIV/AIDS with her advocacy for stem cell research to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Others suggest she was crediting the Reagans for U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s efforts against HIV/AIDS.
With primary results and polls looking as though Clinton will best Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) to win the Democratic nomination, one explanation is that Clinton sought to praise Reagan to win over independents as well as Republicans turned off by Donald Trump.
Pauline Park, a transgender activist based in New York and a Clinton critic, attributed the gaffe to an attempt by Clinton to appear more centrist, saying the candidate’s refusal to participate in interviews with LGBT media outlets “speaks volumes.”
“The only real explanation is that Hillary was willing to win power by trying to curry favor with Republicans and Reagan Democrats by falsifying history, spitting on the graves of the hundreds of thousands of people who died of AIDS because of the Reagan administration’s refusal to take real action to address the epidemic,” Park said. “I lost two boyfriends to AIDS and I never heard either of them speak lovingly or admiringly of either of the Reagans. Hillary’s comments were shameful and it is difficult for me to understand how any LGBT community member could possibly endorse them by supporting her candidacy for president.”
Alvin McEwen, a gay Columbia, S.C.-based Clinton supporter and blogger for Holy Bullies & Headless Monsters, said the reasoning behind the candidate’s gaffe remains “a mystery,” but discounted the idea she was trying to win over conservatives.
“Maybe she was being tongue in cheek or got her words mixed up,” McEwen said. “I don’t think she was trying to appeal to conservative voters though. That’s just too cynical of a notion. To tell the truth though, why she said it doesn’t matter and I don’t think any explanation would matter because none would assuage the anger or hurt. The important thing is that she apologized and we use this moment for education about what happened then and what we can do for AIDS education now.”
Another possible explanation is that Clinton mixed up Nancy Reagan’s efforts on HIV with her record on Alzheimer’s. After all, Clinton said the Reagans were “advocates for stem cell research and finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease” in her initial apology, although she didn’t explicitly say she confused that with their HIV efforts.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, in response to a question Monday from the Washington Blade, said Clinton “quickly realized the error” by issuing an apology. The White House spokesperson suggested Nancy Reagan’s efforts on stem cell research and Alzheimer’s disease may account for the gaffe, but added he’s unsure “if that led Secretary Clinton to inadvertently mix up those two afflictions or not.”
The role of Coop as Reagan’s surgeon general in the fight against HIV/AIDS is another possible explanation for Clinton’s comments. During NBC’s “Meet the Press,” both moderator Chuck Todd and Washington Post reporter Anne Gearan raised Koop’s efforts against the disease to explain Clinton’s comments.
In a March 4, 2013 article in The Atlantic titled “Doctor, Not Chaplain: How a Deeply Religious Surgeon General Taught a Nation About HIV,” John-Manuel Andriote details Koop’s efforts to fight HIV/AIDS in the 1980s despite opposition from conservatives who put him in office.
“Koop’s choice to stand foremost for public health and scientific rationality offended his fellow evangelicals in the Reagan administration who preferred to see AIDS as ‘God’s punishment’ for people of whose very existence they disapproved,” Andriote writes. “They were practically apoplectic with the frank, factual discussion of anal and vaginal intercourse, condoms and injection drug use in Understanding AIDS, the eight-page flier Koop sent to every household in America in 1988.”
Elizabeth Birch, former executive director of the Human Rights Campaign and a Clinton supporter, said she doesn’t know why Clinton made the mistake, but feels the issue has passed.
“I think the memory of Rock Hudson and Nancy Reagan melded in her mind and she misspoke,” Birch said. “The issue isn’t whether she misspoke, obviously she did, the issue is how quickly she corrected it and that was done in record time. It is painful to all of us that lived through the height of the AIDS crisis but it is not as though Hillary Clinton intended to trigger pain. She made a mistake.”
It’s not the first time over the course of the 2016 campaign Clinton has been accused of rewriting history on LGBT rights. In October, Clinton during an interview on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show” said the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 was a “defensive” act intended to stave off worse anti-gay discrimination in the form of a U.S. constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage.
Daniel Pinello, a political scientist at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, offered a different take: Clinton may be avoiding an explanation because providing one could worsen the situation.
“In attempting to explain away the Nancy Reagan/HIV gaffe, Clinton might easily make the matter much worse and dig herself into a deeper hole,” Pinello said. “Indeed, what are her explanatory options? ‘I wasn’t paying much attention to the HIV crisis back then,’ or ‘I thought the Reagans at heart were merciful folks who wouldn’t want to hurt gay people,’ or ‘my memory is failing.”
“In other words, there may not be an adroit exit for her from the controversy,” Pinello added. “In that circumstance, the best political strategy is just to ignore the brouhaha and hope it goes away soon.”
Pinello said the gaffe represents Clinton’s “fundamental lack of understanding” and lack of support in the past for the LGBT community and the history of its struggles.
“I’m one of many LGBT observers who can’t fathom why the Human Rights Campaign rushed to endorse her candidacy, especially since Bernie Sanders has a much more clear record of enduring support for our community,” Pinello said.
Regardless of the explanation for why Clinton made her initial gaffe, many observers see a silver lining because it resulted in both her as well as Sanders bringing HIV/AIDS to the spotlight and issuing plans to combat the disease.
For the first time over the course of her campaign, Clinton came out against HIV criminalization laws in her op-ed after the initial remarks, calling on states “to reform outdated and stigmatizing” statutes that institute penalties for the perceived transfer of HIV. Although Sanders didn’t mention HIV criminalization laws in the plan he unveiled Sunday, a Sanders spokesperson confirmed to the Blade afterward he’s “absolutely opposed” to the laws.
Thirty-two states have laws criminalizing perceived exposure to HIV regardless of the actual risk of transmission, and 13 states have laws criminalizing certain acts — like spitting — by people with HIV/AIDS, even though they can’t transmit the disease through saliva. These laws have resulted in lengthy jail sentences for people with HIV, and in some cases forced those convicted onto the sex offender registry.
Tami Haught, an Iowa-based advocate who’s been outspoken in opposing HIV criminalization laws, said she’s happy both candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination are opposed to those measures.
“I am thrilled that Sec. Clinton has called for HIV criminalization laws to be reformed, it is very important that we get national leaders to recognize these laws are terrible public health policies creating barriers to testing, treatment and care,” Haught said. “I did not see that Sen. Sanders mentioned it in his statement, but hearing from a staffer he also supports reform is also great news. Knowing that the two Democratic candidates for president both acknowledge it is time for these laws to be modernized is amazing, it means they are listening to advocates’ concerns that are being expressed on the campaign trail. As advocates, we need to continue to educate all of the candidates.”