Cruising with Lazarus
Ronald Reagan and AIDS
Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, died June 5, 2004, after a decade living in seclusion with Alzheimer's Disease -- the progressive, irreversible, incurable neurological disorder that causes losses of memory and mental abilities, eventually leading to dementia. After a week of mourning and remembrance, his body was sealed inside a tomb at his hilltop presidential library in Simi Valley, California.
Reagan's life -- from Midwest boy to Hollywood actor, on to the California governor's mansion and then the White House -- was an extraordinary 93-year journey bursting with grand successes and fascinating, but overlooked, details. In 1932, he graduated from Eureka College in Illinois with a bachelor's degree in economics, but became a radio sportscaster. While covering spring training in California for the Chicago Cubs in 1937, Reagan auditioned for Warner Bros. Studios and landed an acting contract. He appeared in over 50 movies, from the sublime (King's Row) to the ridiculous (Bedtime for Bonzo).
A 30-year-old Reagan volunteered for military service in World War II. Barred from combat for poor eyesight, he narrated training films for bomber pilots. Returning to Hollywood after the war, he was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild and became an FBI informant -- even appearing as a friendly witness before a reckless, Communist-hunting congressional cabal known as the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 (which destroyed the lives and careers of many Hollywood types who, as it turned out, weren't really Communists at all).
In 1949, he divorced his actress wife Jane Wyman. Three years later, he remarried another actress, Nancy Davis, on March 4, 1952. Their first child, Patricia Ann Reagan (later known as Patti Davis) was born seven months later. Reagan's acting career waned in the 1950s and he eventually became a television spokesman for the General Electric Company.
Many, if not most, Americans have no idea how Ronald Reagan's political career began. A registered Democrat in the 1950s, he nevertheless campaigned for Republican candidates like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. In 1962, Reagan changed his political affiliation from Democrat to Republican and became cochairman of the California Republicans for Barry Goldwater, a GOP presidential candidate at the time. In 1966, with the help of his large network of political and Hollywood connections, Reagan was elected governor of California. He served two terms and then built a national audience for his political career with a popular syndicated radio show.
After two attempts to secure the Republican nomination for president (1968 and 1976), Reagan achieved that goal in 1980. His likable persona -- confident, but avuncular -- upstaged Jimmy Carter and sold like tonic for a country disheartened by years of Vietnam, Watergate, inflation, an energy embargo and the Iranian hostage crisis. At age 69, America handed this former actor -- the oldest man ever elected president -- the role of a lifetime, and he played it for eight years. Had things gone another way, he might just as easily have been cast as the father figure on some '80s sitcom like Diff 'rent Strokes.
Reagan's presidential tenure began with a hostage crisis in Iran and concluded with the collapse of the Soviet Union. He managed to reshape the Republican Party's image, largely by allowing it to become aligned with the country's growing religious right and the Moral Majority, a political action group founded by fanatically homophobic Rev. Jerry Falwell. There was the admirable Reagan -- he appointed the first woman, Sandra Day O'Connor, to the Supreme Court and negotiated an unprecedented nuclear disarmament pact with Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev -- and the troubling Reagan, who gutted America's health, education and social welfare programs, tripled the national debt through unbridled defense spending and bogus "trickle-down" economics, and covertly sold arms to Iran, in violation of established U.S. policy, then diverted some of the proceeds to military operations in Nicaragua.
Reagan won enormous praise as the first president to master the use of television to secure his political base and deftly enact the ceremonial and public aspects of the presidency. Though he often stumbled if he strayed far from a prepared script, the American public frequently forgave his foibles and contradictions, and he left office in 1989 with the highest approval rating since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Ronald Reagan got a lot of mileage out of his seductive charm and movie star smile. He knew how to deliver a great line. Love him or loathe him, the man was a wildly successful, hugely manipulative media presence. A master of the slick sound bite, he uttered one of his most memorable lines during a trip to Germany in 1987. Standing at the Brandenburg Gate that divided East and West Berlin, Reagan pointed to the "iron curtain" and bellowed, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" While no objective historian believes the Berlin Wall tumbled two years later as a direct result of this dare, Reagan succeeded brilliantly in drawing attention to one of the world's most heinous creations. His palpable indignation resonated around the globe.
If only Ronald Reagan had been willing or able to summon up similar passion and bluntness during the early days of AIDS. First reported in the medical and mainstream press in 1981, it was not until October 1987 that Reagan publicly spoke about the AIDS epidemic in a major policy address. By the end of that year, 59,572 AIDS cases had been reported and 27,909 of those women and men had died. He and his administration did almost nothing during the first seven years of the epidemic. AIDS research was chronically underfunded. Community education and prevention programs were routinely denied federal funding.
Reagan, a man affectionately dubbed the Great Communicator by his supporters, was excruciatingly, unjustifiably silent about HIV and AIDS. Defenders of the Reagan legacy like to argue that his domestic policy advisers downplayed AIDS to such a degree that the former president never developed a sense of urgency. To accept this, you would also have to believe that Reagan never watched television or picked up a newspaper. The media -- print and television, including the first 24-hour news network, CNN -- were all over AIDS in the 1980s. Histrionic televangelists like Pat Robertson and Rev. Jerry Falwell seized any opportunity to articulate and promote the idea that AIDS was God's wrath upon homosexuals.
Even as the highly publicized illness and subsequent 1985 death of Rock Hudson made headlines and sent a shiver down Hollywood's spine, Reagan remained inexplicably quiet. His friend and colleague, beloved actor and White House state dinner guest, was dead from AIDS. No public comment. What was that about? Indifference?
Had he chosen to speak up after Hudson's death, the world would have listened. Ronald Reagan, the man who confidently parlayed Hollywood stardom into a successful political career, could not have had a more compelling opportunity to open his mouth.
Some carefully chosen words might have squelched the homophobic rhetoric of the day. Some genuine leadership might have generated compassion to counter growing hostility and hysteria about AIDS in America. How profoundly different our world might be today if Reagan had pointed to one insufferable preacher and bellowed, "Rev. Falwell, you sanctimonious turd, sit down and shut up!"
Or what if this man, this piece of all-American craftsmanship, had simply offered an affirmation of plainspoken optimism about AIDS? What if he'd just told us he cared about the lives of the people infected or affected by the virus? In eulogizing the former president, the current occupant of the White House, George W. Bush, told us Ronald Reagan "believed that the gentleman always does the kindest thing." All the recent glorification of his presidency cannot eclipse the fact that when it came to AIDS, Ronald Reagan did not show the world his humanity.
David Salyer is an HIV-positive journalist, educator and activist living in Atlanta, Georgia. He leads safer sex presentations for men and has facilitated workshops for people infected or affected by HIV since 1994. Reach him by e-mail at email@example.com.
This article was provided by AIDS Survival Project. It is a part of the publication Survival News.