AIDS AND THE REAGAN ADMINISTRATION

Last week, on World AIDS day, I was sitting in a waiting room while my car was being serviced, checking my phone, and I saw a Facebook posting about a short documentary called ‘When AIDS Was Funny.’ My heart sank into my stomach. I knew it was going to be about the 80s and the Reagan Administration’s resolute blindness when it came to the plague that was killing thousands. I went outside to watch the film, suddenly embarrassed, as if other people in the waiting room already knew what I was looking at, which of course they couldn’t have.

My father is not in the 8 minute film, but his administration is…in the form of Larry Speakes, his press secretary. Scott Calonico has combined several press conferences, from 1982 to 1984, in which a reporter named Lester Kinsolving is trying to get answers from Speakes about a plague called AIDS that is primarily affecting gay men; he wants to know what the White House intends to do about it. In response, there are gay jokes, there is ribald laughter among the reporters, and there are of course no answers. The film intersperses heartbreaking photos of men dying from AIDS. It is a powerful and wrenching 8 minutes.

The first friend I lost to AIDS, in the early 80s, took his own life. He and some friends collected enough pills to spirit him out of this world. They had a day long celebration of his life and then, as evening fell, his lover and another friend sat beside him while he died. We were friends but I wasn’t in his inner circle, so I wasn’t there, but I heard in detail about the last day of his life, the love that surrounded him, and his choice to die before the disease ravaged him further.

This is such a hard piece for me to write, and I’ve avoided the subject for a long time. There is always, for me, a gulf between Ronald Reagan the public figure and the man who was my father. But never more so than with this issue. I wish I could say something, offer something, that would absolve him of responsibility — those years of silence while people died agonizing deaths haunt me. I can’t, of course, but I can offer these insights:

My father had no prejudice against gay people. In fact, he explained to me when I was a child that some men prefer to love other men, and some women prefer to love other women. A lesbian couple who were friends of my parents were constant fixtures in our lives, and even babysat us when my parents went on a trip to Hawaii. When my father was Governor of California and it was revealed that two members of his staff were gay, there was pressure on him to fire the men. He refused. He opposed Proposition 6, which would have barred gay people from teaching in schools. He respected the fact that people have different inclinations, and had no judgement on that.

One of my father’s flaws was that he trusted the people around him to counsel him on the important issues, and advise him on what to address. He trusted them too much. Some of the men around him were absolutely determined that he was not going to address a disease that was sweeping through the gay community. I can promise you, if he had been in a press conference such as the ones shown in that documentary, he not only wouldn’t have laughed, he wouldn’t have tolerated laughter and jokes. None of this absolves him — I know that — but it gives a different perspective. At least I hope it does.

Some of what haunts me is my own guilt for not stepping around his advisors and talking to him about the lives that were being snuffed out so cruelly. I felt at the time that I had used up whatever currency I had with my anti-nuclear activities. I’d brought Helen Caldicott to the White House (which didn’t go well); I’d adopted a very strident and in-your-face agenda when it came to that issue, and I didn’t think there was any kind of welcome mat there for me when it came to bringing another issue to my father’s attention. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I should have tried.

When Rock Hudson died, even the most determined advisors could not then keep the subject of AIDS from my father’s attention. The loss of a friend penetrated the wall that those advisors had built around him, and he did then address the disease that had, by that time, become a plague. After personally asking Tip O’Neill for his support, he got Congress to pledge 40 million dollars to AIDS research, the first federal money appropriated for battling the disease. For so many, it was seen as too little too late. I understand that, and it breaks my heart.

Like everyone else, presidents are responsible for their actions, or their lack of action. But oftentimes actions don’t match what’s in a person’s heart. Often what’s in the heart is a whisper and gets lost in a very loud world. I can’t ignore what happened during my father’s administration, but I choose to hold tight to what I know was in his heart.

 

11 Responses to AIDS AND THE REAGAN ADMINISTRATION

  1. Mark Bennett says:

    Bravo!

  2. David Marks says:

    A brief but powerfully poignant memoir, Patti. Emotionally autobiographical, heartfelt and authentic, you have taken from deep inside of yourself, to pay homage to your father, and in doing so, you have corrected the record. You have begun to augment the history that will be written in the years to come, and that is a service only few know enough to correct and tell.

  3. Tim Daughtry says:

    Patti, that was a heartfelt look at what must have been a hard observation to catalog. I grew up in Georgia and I was so horrified at how Southerners mistreated blacks. I was an odd man out in my choice to not side with the mainstream racism at that time. In my mom’s frustration one night with my long hair, my weird music and my empathy for blacks, she turned to me and blurted out that my father, who I barely knew since he died when I was seven, but who I had made into a god, that my father was a member of the KKK. I was crushed and decided not to believe her. I’ll have to wait until I meet him again to find out if that was true. But I know then it won’t be important. Not on the blue side of forever.

  4. Rodney Wilson says:

    I have wanted to hear from you on this issue for a long time. Thank you. We’re all flawed and frail and sometimes very right and sometimes very wrong. Those flaws, especially in our government, must be pointed out. You’ve done that here. President Reagan — the first person I voted for after turning 18 in 1983 — could have and should have done more personally, but so should we all have done more (including the gay community, including the scientific community), and so we face it, look our failures in the eye, and if there is some grace to be found, we apply it to the situation and times. May all beings then and now and to come, be happy. Thank you for always writing from you heart.

  5. Rodney Wilson says:

    We’re all flawed and frail and sometimes very right and sometimes very wrong. Those flaws, especially in our government, must be pointed out. You’ve done that here. President Reagan — the first person I voted for after turning 18 in 1983 — could have and should have done more personally, but so should we all have done more (including the gay community, including the scientific community), and so we face it, look our failures in the eye, and if there is some grace to be found, we apply it to the situation and times. May all beings then and now and to come, be happy. Thank you for always writing from your heart.

  6. Ted Heyck says:

    Thank you for stepping forward on this issue.

  7. […] Lord, in fact, his own daughter spoke out on Monday against many of the people surrounding her father during his Administration.  Lord would be one of them.  In fact, the US Justice Dept. under Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter […]

  8. Rodney Wilson says:

    This morning, a friend sent a link to this Richard Rohr essay. It reminded me of this essay here, in regard to how we may or may not “judge” those today who have views that differ from our own and how we may or may not “judge” those who lived in history. It might be of interest to readers of “AIDS and the Reagan Administration.”

    http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Meditation–Growing-into-Union.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=ySwOmDs8K9Y

  9. Mick Bysshe says:

    Mel White’s autobiographical book STRANGER AT THE GATE: To be Gay and Christian addresses some of these issues, particularly so in that he was a ghost writer for Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and other religious right leaders.

  10. SteveC says:

    Patti you are in no way responsible for the decisions that your Father made as President. I can certainly underestand your reluctance to speak to him about AIDS. You publicly disagreed with him about the nuclear arms race and paid a price for it; I personally would not have wanted to be on your Mother’s list of people to be punished. Once bitten, twice shy. There is a similar example in which Obama had been led to believe that something was true when it wasn’t – the topic of H1B Visa’s for IT workers. CEO’s of the big firms had complained that they couldn’t get the people they needed to staff their companies. What they left out is no, they couldn’t get Americans for the wages they were willing to pay. It wasn’t until the wife of an American Consultant spoke up and had a discussion with him about the truth, on television. Both of these issues impact my life, but I don’t doubt the sincerity or intent of either President in either case.

  11. Ciaran John Ryan says:

    At a press conference on September 17 1985, President Reagan was asked whether he would support a massive crusade against AIDS in the 1980s, just as Nixon had against cancer a decade before. The President, in answering the question, said that they were already doing just that:
    “I have been supporting it for more than 4 years now. It’s been one of the top priorities with us, and over the last 4 years, and including what we have in the budget for ’86, it will amount to over a half a billion dollars that we have provided for research on AIDS in addition to what I’m sure other medical groups are doing. And we have $100 million in the budget this year; it’ll be $126 million next year. So, this is a top priority with us. Yes, there’s no question about the seriousness of this and the need to find an answer.”

    This was the first time that the press ever asked him about AIDS. Why weren’t they asking him about it before then?

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