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Criticisms follow Clinton comments on Reagans and AIDS
by Matt Simonette
2016-03-13

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Activists, pundits and others were quick to decry March 11 comments by presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton suggesting that Ronald and Nancy Reagan were positive forces for change in the war against HIV/AIDS, despite well-documented historical evidence to the contrary.

Clinton initially issued a brief apology for the remarks March 11 via Twitter, then a more extensive statement at medium.com the following day.

"Yesterday, at Nancy Reagan's funeral, I said something inaccurate when speaking about the Reagans' record on HIV and AIDS," Clinton said in the March 12 statement. "Since then, I've heard from countless people who were devastated by the loss of friends and loved ones, and hurt and disappointed by what I said. As someone who has also lost friends and loved ones to AIDS, I understand why. I made a mistake, plain and simple.

"… To be clear, the Reagans did not start a national conversation about HIV and AIDS. That distinction belongs to generations of brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, along with straight allies, who started not just a conversation but a movement that continues to this day."

Clinton's first comments on the Reagans came in an MSNBC interview with Andrea Mitchell, wherein Clinton said that the couple had sparked a "national conversation" about HIV/AIDS. In reality, the opposite was true: The Reagan White House remained silent on HIV/AIDS, even after the epidemic had taken a devastating toll on thousands of Americans.

Numerous activists and commentators denounced Clinton's remarks and her initial, brief response. "Hillary's boo boo is not going to go away," wrote writer-activist Larry Kramer on Facebook. "Her 'apology' is an insult. And where are the gay staff working on her campaign? They should have warned the moment Nancy croaked."

Jennifer Brier, author of Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis, wrote, "… I am not sure how [Clinton] is defining 'started' or 'national conversation,' but either way, Nancy Reagan did neither. Historians and biographers of President Reagan suggest that it was his wife who encouraged him to give his first (or second) speech about AIDS to AmFAR in 1987, but this was six years into the epidemic."

In a March 11 New Yorker piece, Michael Specter wrote, "The idea that Ronald Reagan finally did focus on AIDS, if only belatedly, is also a fiction. Reagan was outraged in 1986, when his Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, one of the great heroes of the AIDS epidemic, issued a report that, as I wrote when Koop died, recommended a program of compulsory sex education in schools and argued that, by the time they reached third grade, children should be taught how to use condoms."

Locally, activist Victor Salvo, who is executive director of the Legacy Project and had gone on record as a Clinton supporter, said, "Hillary Clinton helped fashion her husband's AIDS policies in the 1990s well-knowing the price that was paid—both political, and in terms of public health—for the federal government's failure to respond in the '80s. So she deserves every inch of the scorn being heaped on her, especially from those of us who have defended her beyond all reason. Her 'oops' about Reagan's AIDS legacy was the most egregiously hurtful thing anyone could possibly say about AIDS—where Reagan's inaction is an irrefutable fact of history. To even hint otherwise is like saying George Wallace was a staunch supporter of school desegregation.

"Hundreds of thousands of gay men got infected because the federal government refused to lift a finger to help educate about safe sex...an entire generation left to die in ignorance because Ronald Reagan and his people—including Nancy—thought we were expendable. For ANY Democratic politician to not have this information tattooed onto their brains is an OUTRAGE. As it is we have an education system that only gives AIDS about two sentences in today's textbooks—and the federal government emerges unscathed from that narrative—denying our children a full understanding of the most important socio-political event of the late 20th-century. Clinton's comments—however characterized—help perpetuate a factually false rewrite of the historic record.

"In the face of this, a 'Tweeted' apology that fails to acknowledge the community's rightful outrage is not an apology—it is a political calculation. I am tired of LGBT people always being expected to suck it up and turn the other cheek "for the good of the Party." Though I would certainly support Hillary Clinton in a general election against any Republican—I am not so sure she is getting my vote on Tuesday, even if I still feel she will be the strongest candidate against Donald Trump. This episode has cracked the lens through which I will forever view her, which is a shame considering that her actual record on AIDS over most of her career is quite good. This whole fiasco would never have happened if LGBT reality was not redacted from shared history.'

Chicago activist Rick Garcia had also been a Clinton supporter but he said, even after the remarks that he still thought she "is the only one who will preserve our gains and make sure we don't go back."

Still, Garcia said he was "dumbfounded" by the remarks, adding, "I was livid at Secretary Clinton's statements about the Reagans. That is not history. That is not fact. It is offensive to the people who know the history and know what happened. I was very upset.

"I'm not going to defend her, but what I will say is, Secretary Clinton immediately understood the error of her ways and apologized. Her initial apology wasn't sufficient, but I have confidence in her and I still stand with Secretary Clinton. … [Nevertheless] too many people died, and the Reagans said nothing and did nothing. To say that they started a national conversation is at best, wrong."

Clinton's entire March 12 statement, published at bit.ly/1Xo8VXU, follows:

On the fight against HIV and AIDS—and on the people who really started the conversation.

Yesterday, at Nancy Reagan's funeral, I said something inaccurate when speaking about the Reagans' record on HIV and AIDS. Since then, I've heard from countless people who were devastated by the loss of friends and loved ones, and hurt and disappointed by what I said. As someone who has also lost friends and loved ones to AIDS, I understand why. I made a mistake, plain and simple.

I want to use this opportunity to talk not only about where we've come from, but where we must go in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

To be clear, the Reagans did not start a national conversation about HIV and AIDS. That distinction belongs to generations of brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, along with straight allies, who started not just a conversation but a movement that continues to this day.

The AIDS crisis in America began as a quiet, deadly epidemic. Because of discrimination and disregard, it remained that way for far too long. When many in positions of power turned a blind eye, it was groups like ACT UP, Gay Men's Health Crisis and others that came forward to shatter the silence——because as they reminded us again and again, Silence = Death. They organized and marched, held die-ins on the steps of city halls and vigils in the streets. They fought alongside a few courageous voices in Washington, like U.S. Representative Henry Waxman, who spoke out from the floor of Congress.

Then there were all the people whose names we don't often hear today——the unsung heroes who fought on the front lines of the crisis, from hospital wards and bedsides, some with their last breath. Slowly, too slowly, ignorance was crowded out by information. People who had once closed their eyes opened their hearts.

If not for those advocates, activists, and ordinary, heroic people, we would not be where we are in preventing and treating HIV and AIDS. Their courage——and their refusal to accept silence as the status quo——saved lives.

We've come a long way. But we still have work to do to eradicate this disease for good and to erase the stigma that is an echo of a shameful and painful period in our country's history.

This issue matters to me deeply. And I've always tried to do my part in the fight against this disease, and the stigma and pain that accompanies it. At the 1992 Democratic National Convention, when my husband accepted the nomination for president, we marked a break with the past by having two HIV-positive speakers——the first time that ever happened at a national convention. As First Lady, I brought together world leaders to strategize and coordinate efforts to take on HIV and AIDS around the world. In the Senate, I put forward legislation to expand global AIDS research and assistance and to increase prevention and education, and I proudly voted for the creation of PEPFAR and to defend and protect the Ryan White Act. And as secretary of state, I launched a campaign to usher in an AIDS-free generation through prevention and treatment, targeting the populations at greatest risk of contracting HIV.

The AIDS crisis looks very different today. There are more options for treatment and prevention than ever before. More people with HIV are leading full and happy lives. But HIV and AIDS are still with us. They continue to disproportionately impact communities of color, transgender people, young people and gay and bisexual men. There are still 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States today, with about 50,000 people newly diagnosed each year. In Sub-Saharan Africa, almost 60 percent of people with HIV are women and girls. Even though the tools exist to end this epidemic once and for all, there are still far too many people dying today.

That is absolutely inexcusable.

I believe there's even more we can——and must——do together. For starters, let's continue to increase HIV and AIDS research and invest in the promising innovations that research is producing. Medications like PrEP are proving effective in preventing HIV infection; we should expand access to that drug for everyone, including at-risk populations. We should call on Republican governors to put people's health and well-being ahead of politics and extend Medicaid, which would provide health care to those with HIV and AIDS.

We should call on states to reform outdated and stigmatizing HIV criminalization laws. We should increase global funding for HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment. And we should cap out-of-pocket expenses and drug costs——and hold companies like Turing and Valeant accountable when they attempt to gouge patients by jacking up the price of lifesaving medications.

We're still surrounded by memories of loved ones lost and lives cut short. But we're also surrounded by survivors who are fighting harder than ever. We owe it to them and to future generations to continue that fight together. For the first time, an AIDS-free generation is in sight. As president, I promise you that I will not let up until we reach that goal. We will not leave anyone behind.


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