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Ronald Reagan and AIDS
In Dissent, Number One Hundred and Forty
by Brian S. Wise
31 October 2003Ronald Reagan

Was Ronald Reagan's record on AIDS "perfect?"  No.  Was it non-existent?  No.


Ronald Reagan is nearing his end; obviously his is a condition that renders him unable to elaborate upon his years as governor and president, but since there still exists a certain commercial thirst for information regarding those administrations, it seemed inevitable that something like The Reagans (CBS, November sixteenth and eighteenth) would eventually appear.  Even more inevitable that the film would go so far out of its way to point out that no one is perfect, whether those imperfections pertaining to President Reagan were real or alleged.

Too affable and old for elites to take seriously, Reagan was early on branded too simpleminded for high office, a criticism that has evaporated slowly over the years, but never more so than recently when a collection of his letters was released, allowing readers to see, unedited, his thoughtfulness and intelligence.  (Those things were always there to see if you wanted to see them; I recall with special fondness the debate Reagan had with Mr. William F. Buckley, Jr. over the fate of the Panama Canal, pre-presidency.)  But certainly there is some fairness in pointing out, for example, that Reagan was a religious man who only very rarely went to church, or that he spoke so highly of family virtues while keeping his own children at an arm’s length, et cetera.

What CBS seems prepared to do, according to a final shooting script leaked to the New York Times, reviews by some people who have seen the film and some audio excerpts played by Matt Drudge on the Limbaugh program last week, is lie, which should come as no surprise but for what appears to be the length and depth of the lies themselves.  Surely you have heard of Reagan’s being pegged as an informer for the blacklist (as Screen Actors Guild president, Reagan cooperated with investigations into Hollywood Communism but received kudos from Hollywood Leftists as to his treatment of the blacklist), that his and Nancy Reagan’s relationship very often digressed into a sixth-grade slap and tickle, or that Nancy Reagan was essentially walking through the White House screaming “No more wire hangers!”

But President Reagan’s treatment of AIDS has emerged as the big story.  The script has Reagan saying, when questioned about AIDS, “They that live in sin shall die in sin” and absolutely nothing more.  According to the New York Times, “[playwright] Elizabeth Egloff … acknowledged there was no evidence such a conversation took place,” but that “other biographies noted that Mr. Reagan had trouble squaring homosexuality with the Bible.  In Dutch … Edmund Morris writes Mr. Reagan once said of AIDS, ‘Maybe the Lord brought down this plague,’ because ‘illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.”

Rock singer Sebastian Bach once wore a t-shirt on stage that said “AIDS Kills Fags Dead.” 

Which is worse?

Ed Morrow makes an instructive point in an article for National Review Online (October twenty-seventh): “The fact is that for years, the danger of AIDS wasn’t accurately understood by most …. Even the gay community didn’t recognize the danger.  Today, many have forgotten how confused everyone was by the appearance of a horrible illness that seemed like some monstrous plague risen from the Dark Ages.”  That we have forgotten is why lines like “They that live in sin shall die in sin” will not strike the majority of viewers as something entirely unlikely as a Reagan quote, a shame.  Reagan didn’t keep Ryan White out of school, a lack of understanding of AIDS to that point did.  Nothing Reagan could have done would have changed that; if he was biased, he wasn’t the only one.  (Lyndon LaRouche wanted to quarantine all AIDS patients on an island, remember?)

So how Reagan did on AIDS depends on what you want to see.  Despite certain moral objections, in 1981, the year widely recognized as the first of the virus, spending on research was allocated at “a few hundred thousand dollars” according to a July 2002 report from the Henry J. Kaiser Family and Ford Foundations, and “increased to $8 million only one year later.”  More, “Spending … nearly doubled every year from [fiscal year] 1982 to 1989.”  A tremendous amount of money given the scope of the problem as it was known in 1989?  No.  Fair to say the administration did nothing at all?  No.

Douglas Kmiec, President Reagan’s constitutional legal advisor, also pointed out on National Review Online (October twenty-third) that, “When an initial legal inquiry suggested that those with AIDS might not be eligible for civil-rights protection because employers … could assert a legitimate ‘fear of contagion,’ … it was President Reagan who appointed a commission on AIDS that ultimately asked for that legal thinking to be re-examined.”  In the end, Reagan “concurred with my legal opinion that, as a matter of law, individuals with AIDS were entitled to existing civil-rights protections and could be excluded from those protections only where they would be shown, on an individual basis, to pose a threat to the health and safety of others or to be unable to perform their required jobs.”

Continued Kmiec, “As anticipated, this result was not uniformly embraced.”  Despite that, President Reagan and his staff “saw it as so important that they convened a major press conference at the Justice Department to highlight the opinion.  The conference took place in October 1988 – not an ideal time to be announcing controversial news, as President Reagan was then campaigning for the election of his then-vice president, George H.W. Bush.”  Again, did Ronald Reagan do everything humanly possible to examine, research and defeat AIDS?  No; but given the benefit of nearly 23 years of hindsight, has anyone?  Had he spent $20 billion on research in 1985, would it have made a difference, given the fact Mankind has never in its history cured a virus (not even the common cold)?  Asks and answers Morrow: “Was enough money devoted to AIDS?  Probably not.  Enough money is seldom allocated to any disease …. We’ll only know how much is enough after a cure is produced.” 

The distinction between being slow to act and being unwilling to act is cavernous; surely the idea of AIDS as it was understood back then went against Ronald Reagan’s personal religious beliefs, but only out of complete ignorance can someone not acknowledge that the “federal research and educational programs that are now fighting AIDS were launched by the Reagan administration.”

An objective look at the question finds that good was done and also that, as Lou Cannon put it in the New York Times, sometimes Reagan was “asleep at the switch” when it came to AIDS.  Only the latter version is of any particular interest to Leftists, because to give President Reagan credit for any effort, no matter how small, is a sacrifice that cannot be made so long as a greater point can be made, That Ronald Reagan Did Nothing About AIDS.  Even if its false.

Brian Wise is the lead columnist for IntellectualConservative.com.

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