While attending the funeral of Nancy Reagan in Simi Valley, California, Clinton made the following comment to NBC News:
“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about H.I.V./AIDS back in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan – in particular, Mrs. Reagan – we started a national conversation, when before nobody would talk about it. Nobody wanted anything to do with it, and that, too, is something that I really appreciate. With her very effective, low-key advocacy … it penetrated the public conscience and people began to say: ‘Hey, we have to do something about this too.’”
Almost immediately, the fallout began. Criticism came swiftly from various quarters, not just LGBT organizations but news organizations such as Gawker; even Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign (who have endorsed Clinton’s campaign), stated on Twitter that “Nancy Reagan was, sadly, no hero in the fight against H.I.V./AIDS.” A few came to her defense, such as this post at The Peoples’ View, a pro-Obama blog.
Within hours, Clinton’s campaign issued the following apology:
“While the Reagans were strong advocates for stem cell research and finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, I misspoke about her record on HIV and AIDS. For that, I’m sorry.”
Today, Clinton issued a second, much longer apology on Medium.com, which is below in full:
Yesterday, at Nancy Reagan’s funeral, I said something inaccurate when speaking about the Reagans’ record on HIV and AIDS. Since then, I’ve heard from countless people who were devastated by the loss of friends and loved ones, and hurt and disappointed by what I said. As someone who has also lost friends and loved ones to AIDS, I understand why. I made a mistake, plain and simple.
I want to use this opportunity to talk not only about where we’ve come from, but where we must go in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
To be clear, the Reagans did not start a national conversation about HIV and AIDS. That distinction belongs to generations of brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, along with straight allies, who started not just a conversation but a movement that continues to this day.
The AIDS crisis in America began as a quiet, deadly epidemic. Because of discrimination and disregard, it remained that way for far too long. When many in positions of power turned a blind eye, it was groups like ACT UP, Gay Men’s Health Crisis and others that came forward to shatter the silence — because as they reminded us again and again, Silence = Death. They organized and marched, held die-ins on the steps of city halls and vigils in the streets. They fought alongside a few courageous voices in Washington, like U.S. Representative Henry Waxman, who spoke out from the floor of Congress.
Then there were all the people whose names we don’t often hear today — the unsung heroes who fought on the front lines of the crisis, from hospital wards and bedsides, some with their last breath. Slowly, too slowly, ignorance was crowded out by information. People who had once closed their eyes opened their hearts.
If not for those advocates, activists, and ordinary, heroic people, we would not be where we are in preventing and treating HIV and AIDS. Their courage — and their refusal to accept silence as the status quo — saved lives.
We’ve come a long way. But we still have work to do to eradicate this disease for good and to erase the stigma that is an echo of a shameful and painful period in our country’s history.
This issue matters to me deeply. And I’ve always tried to do my part in the fight against this disease, and the stigma and pain that accompanies it. At the 1992 Democratic National Convention, when my husband accepted the nomination for president, we marked a break with the past by having two HIV-positive speakers — the first time that ever happened at a national convention. As First Lady, I brought together world leaders to strategize and coordinate efforts to take on HIV and AIDS around the world. In the Senate, I put forward legislation to expand global AIDS research and assistance and to increase prevention and education, and I proudly voted for the creation of PEPFAR and to defend and protect the Ryan White Act. And as secretary of state, I launched a campaign to usher in an AIDS-free generation through prevention and treatment, targeting the populations at greatest risk of contracting HIV.
The AIDS crisis looks very different today. There are more options for treatment and prevention than ever before. More people with HIV are leading full and happy lives. But HIV and AIDS are still with us. They continue to disproportionately impact communities of color, transgender people, young people and gay and bisexual men. There are still 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States today, with about 50,000 people newly diagnosed each year. In Sub-Saharan Africa, almost 60 percent of people with HIV are women and girls. Even though the tools exist to end this epidemic once and for all, there are still far too many people dying today.
That is absolutely inexcusable.
I believe there’s even more we can — and must — do together. For starters, let’s continue to increase HIV and AIDS research and invest in the promising innovations that research is producing. Medications like PrEP are proving effective in preventing HIV infection; we should expand access to that drug for everyone, including at-risk populations. We should call on Republican governors to put people’s health and well-being ahead of politics and extend Medicaid, which would provide health care to those with HIV and AIDS.
We should call on states to reform outdated and stigmatizing HIV criminalization laws. We should increase global funding for HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment. And we should cap out-of-pocket expenses and drug costs—and hold companies like Turing and Valeant accountable when they attempt to gouge patients by jacking up the price of lifesaving medications.
We’re still surrounded by memories of loved ones lost and lives cut short. But we’re also surrounded by survivors who are fighting harder than ever. We owe it to them and to future generations to continue that fight together. For the first time, an AIDS-free generation is in sight. As president, I promise you that I will not let up until we reach that goal. We will not leave anyone behind.
In summation, the apology/essay is replete with homages and references to the history of the epidemic and the fierce activists who fought against it.
One of the questions which are now being raised to this essay, and to the whole controversy sparked by her words, is “what was she thinking when she lauded the Reagans?”
Anyone can read about how Ronald Reagan didn’t utter the word “AIDS” until at least 5 years into the plague and over 20,000 people died from it in the United States; when the word was uttered by his press secretary, it was done so in jest with a homophobic crank propagandist named Les Kinsolving.
Anyone can read about the desolation in neighborhoods across the country, how it went beyond being a so-called “gay-related immunodeficiency syndrome” to becoming a “Black” disease around which conspiracy theories (on par with the Reagans’ alleged flooding of Black neighborhoods with cocaine) hover to this day. More recent knowledge shows how the Reagans did not help their “dear friend”, Hollywood actor Rock Hudson, as he suffered from AIDS and languished without a more advanced French hospital to spend his last days.
Clinton, as she stated in her essay, lived through the crisis and saw many people in her life suffer and die from the disease in the 1980s and 1990s. She was personally affected by the plague’s devastation, and I have no doubt that she was affected. She freaking went with her husband to visit AIDS quilt memorial on the National Mall.
But was she, at the time she spoke those words to Andrea Mitchell, not as knowledgeable about the deep politics and mistrust regarding the Reagan administration’s comparative lack of a response to AIDS? And if so, did she read up on that history (a la the late Randy Shilts’ powerful 1987 history book And the Band Played On, or the Cliff’s Notes version) between the first and second apologies? Even more cynical queries abound regarding this incident and the aftermath.
But given that she only mentioned the word HIV/AIDS once in that paragraph of words, my money is on her first apology’s claim of misspeaking on the Reagans’ legacy on Alzheimer’s disease. The Reagans did start a national conversation on Alzheimer’s after Reagan left office, similar to how both Michael J. Fox and radio host Ron Reagan (son of Ronald and Nancy) started the modern national conversation on Parkinson’s disease being treatable through stem cell research.
I accept this claim because the following speech at the convention which brought her spouse to power helped further raise the profile of AIDS victims to political levels.
I accept it because her spouse’s administration dramatically raised federal funding for HIV prevention and treatment, and because the Clinton Foundation has been a leading funder for HIV/AIDS research, treatment and prevention.
I don’t think there is any way that she or anyone could deliberately credit the Reagans with starting anything resembling a national conversation on, or even a timely response to, the AIDS plague.
Well, there are some who would, and they’re pretty weird: