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Cruising with Lazarus
Son of a Bush

By David Salyer

September 2001

President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney don't have much going for them. George W. is the son of the original Bush, a one-term president so bland and feckless that he had to declare war on Iraq just to get attention. Cheney, in case you've forgotten or never knew, was the Secretary of Defense from 1989-1993 while George W.'s daddy played president and babbled about wanting a "kinder, gentler" America. Apparently, Cheney failed to convince the elder Bush that declaring war and dropping bombs are not typically regarded as kind, gentle actions. Fast forward a decade or so and you have son George W. Bush spinning his dad's approach into something he likes to call "compassionate conservatism." Whatever.

Less than a year in office, George W. answers one question: What would it have been like to have his dad's vice president, Dan Quayle, assume the presidency? Quayle, a constant, though admittedly entertaining embarrassment to his administration, shares George W.'s "what-me-worry?" disposition. Neither really seems like presidential material, but George W. has the family name, seemingly the only qualification the Republican Party considered before thrusting him into our faces.

George W.'s lack of qualifications aside, what is he planning to do about HIV and AIDS in the United States during his presidency? His father believed AIDS should be treated like any other communicable or sexually transmitted disease, a callow, empty-headed position shared by virtually no one in the field of health care or AIDS prevention. He opposed distribution of condoms and needle exchange programs and approved prevention education that stressed marital fidelity and abstinence only. George W.'s mother, the inexplicably popular First Lady Barbara Bush, chose the politically safe subject of illiteracy as her preferred cause, offering only a perfunctory acknowledgment of AIDS by attending the funeral of HIV-positive teenage hemophiliac Ryan White. With his parents providing such shining examples of non-involvement, George W. will likely address the global AIDS pandemic with the only tool at his disposal: lip service -- the refuge of politicians lacking vision, compassion or integrity.

George W. hasn't a clue about AIDS. Want proof? Earlier this year his administration announced that the White House Office of National AIDS Policy would be closed. Days later, after much protest, the White House said the office would remain open, but reorganized. George W. then appointed Scott H. Evertz to lead the office. Evertz is gay and Republican, with a resume that includes fundraising for an anti-abortion group and presidency of the Wisconsin chapter of Log Cabin Republicans, a national political group for gays and lesbians. Evertz met George W. in 2000 during an organized effort to raise awareness of gay issues within the Republican Party. Except for some work with a Catholic AIDS ministry, Evertz has no experience in HIV treatment or prevention and no policymaking background. This baffling appointment has no merit whatsoever and may ultimately have the same effect as closing the Office of National AIDS Policy.

Want more? In June, Surgeon General David Satcher released a 30-page report on sexuality urging parents and teachers to provide children with a comprehensive sex education that promotes abstinence, but also permits distribution of condoms and other forms of contraception. Satcher called for an honest, mature and respectful national dialogue on sexual health and sexual behavior, going so far as to assert that sexual ignorance encourages high-risk sexual practices. George W. and his administration quickly distanced themselves from the report, reminding us that Satcher was appointed by former President Bill Clinton and that his candid assessment of sex in America does not reflect the values of the current administration. In other words, when Surgeon General David Satcher's appointment expires in 2002, he's history.

This is a double tragedy because, first, Bush never read Satcher's report -- his domestic policy advisers briefed him on its contents. George W. dismissed two years worth of exhaustive research with the usual conservative claptrap: the "best way" to avoid disease is sexual abstinence, and besides, he says, these matters should be decided at the local level. Following Bush logic, why then would we need a White House Office of National AIDS Policy? And second, the Bush administration shuns and invalidates David Satcher, a respected African-American physician, just as people are finally waking up to the reality of AIDS in black America. It's funny how George W.'s "compassionate conservatism" looks like old-fashioned racism and stupidity.

And then there's Vice President Dick Cheney, a man who's had four heart attacks, a quadruple bypass, a stent inserted in a coronary artery (later reopened to remove blockage), and both a pacemaker and a defibrillator installed in his heart. One does not have to be a critical care nurse to understand that Cheney has a serious medical condition -- coronary artery disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States -- and yet we have been assured over and over again that his permanently damaged heart should be no cause for alarm to us. It's as if we have been asked to ignore the fact that, forgive the pun, Cheney is quite literally a heartbeat away from the presidency. Some Washington insiders even believe that Cheney actually runs the show anyway or, at the very least, provides adult supervision for George W.

Health challenges aside, Cheney has a wretched congressional voting record on HIV and AIDS. While in Congress Cheney and 12 other Republican representatives voted against the landmark 1988 bill that initiated federal funding for AIDS testing and counseling. Since then, he's supported measures to cut federal AIDS research and to allow health-insurance companies to deny coverage to people with HIV in the District of Columbia. As a congressman and now vice president, Cheney himself enjoys free medical care, something that began in 1978 when he was first elected to Congress (ironically the same year as his first heart attack).

Frankly, Cheney's unstable heart and ongoing health problems should have automatically disqualified him as the president's backup. Cheney, and the Republican Party for that matter, do a great disservice to the American public by dismissing the seriousness of coronary artery disease and acting as if his medical condition is a simple inconvenience, ultimately asking us to accept that the stress of his job has no life-threatening consequences. Too harsh? Consider this: What are the chances that the Republican Party would nominate a 60 year old, HIV+ man for the vice presidency? Would 800 T-cells and an undetectable viral load make any difference? What if he'd never had an opportunistic infection? You know the answer to these questions. No chance. No. Nope.

George W. Bush is a smoke and mirrors creation of the Republican Party, about as politically relevant as the Wizard of Oz. Dick Cheney is understandably preoccupied with cheating death (a lot of us living with HIV know how that goes). Don't expect either one of these men to challenge the stigma of HIV or AIDS. Don't wait for them to champion programs that educate people out of sexual ignorance. Don't look for them to support needle exchange programs or condom distribution. Don't anticipate any speeches addressing America's sexual hypocrisies. Don't be surprised if this administration's Office of National AIDS Policy begets no policy. Don't suppose the next appointed Surgeon General will be anything more than a vapid mouthpiece for an administration shockingly out of touch with the global realities of AIDS. And don't get your hopes up about George W. and Dick Cheney. They are not residents of the real world. Their so-called "compassionate conservatism" is fictional, like those fairy tales where boys meet girls and fall in love, get married and live happily ever after.

Comments? David Salyer may be reached at cubscout@mindspring.com.




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