I recently talked about the episode of Eli Stone that criticized Reagan’s record on AIDS. As fate would have it, I was reading a book a few days later that discussed the issue extensively: Reagan’s Disciple, by Lou and Carl Cannon.
The Cannons were responding to the Showtime miniseries, The Reagans, which in an early draft depicted Reagan as saying, “Those who live in sin shall die in sin.” For many on the left, Reagan’s homophobia was the reason that he did nothing to stop the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s. But the Cannons demonstrate that Reagan was not homophobic, and that his administration actually did a lot in response to the disease. They still fault him, however, for not speaking much about it in public.
At the outset, let me say that The Reagans miniseries was actually basing the “Those who live in sin” statement on a Reagan quote. Reagan biographer Edmund Morris quotes Reagan as saying, “Maybe the Lord brought down this plague…because illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.” But that doesn’t mean that Reagan had a “let them die” attitude. Abraham Lincoln thought the Civil War was God’s punishment on America for slavery, but he didn’t have a “do-nothing” mindset. Reagan believed in the fulfillment of biblical prophecies that would culminate in Armageddon, yet he tried to prevent that apocalyptic catastrophe. So Reagan could speculate that AIDS was a punishment from God, while still trying to do something about it.
That said, let’s turn now to the Cannons’ book. I take my information from pages 266-271 of Reagan’s Disciple (New York: Public Affairs, 2008).
Did Reagan hate homosexuals? No. He had worked with them throughout his Hollywood career. As Governor of California, he did bow to pressure from his aides when he dismissed his chief of staff, who was an alleged homosexual. But he didn’t understand what the big deal was. “Let me tell you something about homosexuals,” Reagan said. “There are a lot of them.” In 1978, Reagan opposed a ballot measure that would have barred homosexual teachers from public schools. “Whatever it is, homosexuality was not a contagious disease, like the measles,” he argued. “Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.”
As an aside, the Cannons document that George W. Bush has demonstrated the same attitude, notwithstanding his support for the Federal Marriage Amendment. Lanny Davis was a Clinton aide who went to Yale with Bush in the 1960’s. Davis and Bush were sitting with a group of Dekes who were making fun of an effeminate young man, calling him a “queer.” According to Davis, Bush snapped. “Shut up!” Bush said. “Why don’t you try walking in his shoes for a while and see how it feels before you make a comment like that?” That coincides with an interview that Bush gave years later, in which he said that he did not fire gay people from his staff. Reagan and Bush are men of religious principle, yet they’ve shown respect to those who are different.
Back to Reagan and AIDS. In 1984, Reagan thought that AIDS was like the measles and would go away. When his good friend Rock Hudson got sick and died from it, however, Reagan became convinced that it was much more than that. But the Reagan administration spent money for AIDS research starting in 1983. According to the Cannons, “In fiscal year 1983, the Reagan administration…spent $44 million fighting AIDS, a number that essentially doubled each year of Reagan’s presidency and reached $2.3 billion in the fiscal year ending in 1989.”
But Reagan did not publicly speak out about AIDS until 1987. Certain conservatives in his administration encouraged him to keep his distance from AIDS and homosexuals. Gary Bauer didn’t want the President of the United States to say the word “condom” in public.
At the same time, Reagan’s Health and Human Services Secretary, Margaret Heckler, did make public statements about the disease. In August 1983, she held the hand of an AIDS patient, Peter Justice, “as a way of alleviating the public’s fear about transmission.” “The person with AIDS is bearing a very heavy burden,” she stated. “We ought to be comforting the sick rather than inflicting them and making them a class of outcasts.”
The Reagan record on AIDS is much more complex than the Left assumes. Reagan himself may not have believed that homosexuality was God’s will for human beings, but he tried to love homosexuals. He may not have been perfect, but he did try.
March 12, 2016 update: I am learning about how Nancy Reagan declined Rock Hudson’s request for President Reagan to intervene so that Hudson could get treatment in France. See here for an article on that.