Tuesday, June 08, 2004
by Wayne Besen
It is clear by the outpouring of emotion across the globe that Ronald Reagan was a great leader. He inspired millions of people and made America safer by triumphing over Communism. Reagan's leadership and gift for inspiring hope makes his stunning failure to confront the AIDS crisis all the more tragic.
President Reagan waited until 1987, six years into the epidemic, to give his first speech on the topic. The president known for his sunny optimism did not extend one ray of hope to those who suffered horrible deaths.
While urban centers convulsed with fear and thousands of families were mourning in America, Reagan smiled and pretended it was Morning in America.
The year Reagan finally and reluctantly mentioned AIDS, I was 17 and coming out of the closet. It was a scary time before today's HIV drug cocktails. I watched a 22-year-old friend go blind as his tough, hulking father kneeled bedside and cried. I saw young men in the prime of their lives so frail they walked with canes.
We needed President Reagan to comfort us and enact compassionate policies that would educate our community and find funds for research to end the AIDS crisis. Unfortunately, we were considered expendable and forsaken by the President.
Reagan had never been particularly good on gay issues. In the late sixties as then California governor, Reagan called homosexuality a "tragic disease" and said that homosexuality should be illegal. To his credit, however, Gov. Reagan's opposition to the 1977 Briggs Initiative helped defeat the measure that would have banned gay teachers from teaching in California public schools.
But Reagan's warm embrace of Rev. Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority during his 1980 presidential campaign gave the Religious Right unprecedented power. Thanks to Reagan, the right wing is now the "base" of the Republican Party and continues to oppose gay and lesbian equality.
Led by fawning Fox news, it has been difficult for many gay people to watch the obsequious media coverage. The mindless gushing and historic amnesia over Reagan's true legacy appall many gay leaders who want to set the record straight. For example, playwright and activist Larry Kramer penned a column for the Advocate magazine and opened it with the line, "Our murderer is dead".
In a letter to the New York Times, Christopher L. Babick, former Executive Director of People With AIDS Coalition in New York chided Reagan for his "lack of sensitivity and interest he displayed in AIDS."
While Ronald Reagan is gone, AIDS survives and continues to wreak havoc. Millions of people worldwide have died or now live with this deadly disease. Entire nations in Africa are threatened with total collapse.
Early on Reagan could have done something to head off this epic catastrophe. He failed in this most crucial test of his leadership.
This neglect is no mere blemish on Reagan's record, but akin to a gash on the face of Mona Lisa.
Historians may one day write that the Great Communicator's tragic silence on the Evil Epidemic eclipsed his tremendous victory over the Evil Empire. Reagan rightfully will be remembered for his great successes, but also for his spectacular failure in dealing with an epidemic that has yet to run its deadly course.