Reagan's AIDS Legacy / Silence equals death
Published 4:00 am, Tuesday, June 8, 2004
.. With AIDS finally out of the closet, activists such as Paul Boneberg, who in 1984 started Mobilization Against AIDS in San Francisco, begged President Reagan to say something now that he, like thousands of Americans, knew a person with AIDS. Writing in the Washington Post in late 1985, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, stated: "It is surprising that the president could remain silent as 6,000 Americans died, that he could fail to acknowledge the epidemic's existence. Perhaps his staff felt he had to, since many of his New Right supporters have raised money by campaigning against homosexuals."
Reagan would ultimately address the issue of AIDS while president. His remarks came May 31, 1987 (near the end of his second term), at the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington. When he spoke, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and 20,849 had died. The disease had spread to 113 countries, with more than 50,000 cases.
As millions eulogize Reagan this week, the tragedy lies in what he might have done. Today, the World Health Organization estimates that more than 40 million people are living with HIV worldwide. An estimated 5 million people were newly infected and 3 million people died of AIDS in 2003 alone.
Reagan could have chosen to end the homophobic rhetoric that flowed from so many in his administration. Dr. C. Everett Koop, Reagan's surgeon general, has said that because of "intradepartmental politics" he was cut out of all AIDS discussions for the first five years of the Reagan administration. The reason, he explained, was "because transmission of AIDS was understood to be primarily in the homosexual population and in those who abused intravenous drugs." The president's advisers, Koop said, "took the stand, 'They are only getting what they justly deserve.' "
How profoundly different might have been the outcome if his leadership had generated compassion rather than hostility. "In the history of the AIDS epidemic, President Reagan's legacy is one of silence," Michael Cover, former associate executive director for public affairs at Whitman-Walker Clinic, the groundbreaking AIDS health-care organization in Washington. in 2003. "It is the silence of tens of thousands who died alone and unacknowledged, stigmatized by our government under his administration."