Update: March 11, 2016
At 4:24 p.m. EST, Clinton tweeted out a short statement walking back her praise for the Reagans, saying that she “misspoke” about their record on HIV/AIDS. The statement was similar to one tweeted around an hour and a half earlier by Chad Griffin, president of the LGBT rights organization Human Rights Campaign. The HRC without asking its membership list to approve the endorsement.
During an appearance on MSNBC this afternoon, Hillary Clinton credited President Reagan and his wife, Nancy, with starting a “national conversation” on HIV/AIDS:
It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s, 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 to do anything about it, and that, too, is something I really appreciate with her very effective low-key advocacy. It penetrated the public conscience and people began to say, “Hey, we have to do something about this too.”
Clinton’s telling of HIV/AIDS history doesn’t align with the facts. President Reagan waited seven years to address the HIV/AIDS crisis, even as thousands of Americans died from the disease. Dr. C. Everett Koop, the administration’s surgeon general, said the president dragged his feet on the issue “because transmission of AIDS was understood to be primarily in the homosexual population and in those who abused intravenous drugs.” Koop said their position was that AIDS victims were “only getting what they justly deserve.”
In 1985, the Reagans’ friend Rock Hudson, then dying of AIDS, traveled to Paris in a desperate attempt to be treated by a French military doctor. As BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner reported last year, Hudson’s publicist sent the Reagan White House a telegram begging for help in getting Hudson moved to a French military hospital where the doctor could treat him. Nancy Reagan personally saw and rejected the request.
Nancy Reagan may have played a role in encouraging her husband to push for more funding for AIDS research, which Congress did appropriate. However, says Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, “Shameful is not even strong enough a word for the record of the Reagan administration on this. Did she try and fail, or not try very hard? I really don’t know.”
In fact, the Reagan White House even laughed off questions about the epidemic as it was spreading across America, which is the subject of the new documentary When AIDS Was Funny. That is hardly the conversation the victims of HIV/AIDS needed.