Twitter, and likely most of the rest of the Internet, erupted today when Hillary Clinton, in a televised interview with Andrea Mitchell, said the following about Nancy Reagan, whose funeral was held today in California’s Simi Valley:
“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/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, but it penetrated the public conscience and people began to say, ‘Hey, we have to do something about this too.'” (Skip to 4:07 below for just this bit.)
I watched Clinton’s entire interview with Mitchell. The conversation is conducted in front of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the site of the memorial service. The blue, gray-green, and pale browns of the mountains behind the library frame the interview quite well, melding easily with Clinton’s navy blue suit, her neatly combed, nailed-in-place hair. LA was cloudy this morning, providing a calm gloom for a former First Lady’s funeral.
Mitchell doesn’t question Clinton’s assertion about Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s efforts to aid the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s. It’s not that kind of interview. It’s a soft-pedaled, appreciative, otherwise unimportant interview. “We have to let you get inside,” Mitchell says, “so you can pay tribute in your own way.”
Why does that interview, on appearance, before the outrage, look good to Clinton staffers? The candidate is gracious, sad, appreciative of a recently deceased public figure. The interview is short, to the point. Clinton gets in talking points about curtailing gun violence; she lauds Nancy Reagan’s commitment to researching the diseases which afflicted her husband. And, best of all, this mention of the Reagans increasing awareness of the AIDS crisis helps blue-collar Rust Belt/flyover state voters, who were never liberal, to feel better about Reagan. Hell, they might even give their vote to Clinton; she clearly appreciates the man who torpedoed the rights of the poor and working class, helped subsidize the work of anti-communist rebels—or Contras—in Nicaragua, and with his wife, declined to address the AIDS crisis slaying Americans left and right.
In 2011 I saw a staged production of Larry Kramer’s seminal play The Normal Heart on Broadway. I didn’t know much about his work or the play’s impact, only that it was about the AIDS crisis in New York. What unfolded over the next two hours had me sobbing quietly, rage roiling through every vein. The Normal Heart never once mentions the word “AIDS”, and the omission amplifies the despair overcoming its characters. AIDS is the invisible killer; in New York in the 70s and 80s, this was not only because no one knew what was happening, but because no one wanted to talk about it. The literal opposite of what Clinton said about the Reagans this morning. Ned Weeks, the play’s protagonist, watches his brother’s homophobia surface; his first love, whom he has just come to know, die; men and women located anywhere along the sexual spectrum fall prey to a disease that no one can trace. Mayor Ed Koch famously never mentioned the disease while thousands died in New York City; his only act was to shut down homosexual and heterosexual bathhouses in New York City.
Kramer took the stage just after the standing ovation ended, handing out flyers about all the real figures in history on whom he based his characters. He was defiant, he stood tall, and he urged the audience to act. I cried even harder.
I sat in my seat for a very long time after the curtain went up. As I walked out I was furious, and determined: I wanted to volunteer to help AIDS patients, perhaps write letters that a non-profit could send to Congress or the Senate. I wanted to do something.
Of course, I never did. It’s easy to forget your outrage when you’re not confronted by terror and ignorance on a daily basis. I’d read Angels in America as a college freshman, in a brilliant class about New York City as represented in film, literature, TV, and music. The book rattled me to my core. I wrote a paper about it. But that was the extent of my involvement.
Ronald Reagan first took office in 1981. His Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was not permitted to mail literature to every American household about possibly preventing AIDS through condom usage till 1988. In 1980, Reagan had this to say about same-sex rights: “My criticism is that [the gay movement] isn’t just asking for civil rights; it’s asking for recognition and acceptance of an alternative lifestyle which I do not believe society can condone, nor can I.”
In 1980 my parents hadn’t even met. 20 years after Reagan first ran for President, we moved to America. Six years after that, in AP US History, I learned about Reagan and his policies from the best history teacher I’ve ever had. She’d been teaching for nearly 40 years and knew everything there is to know about American history. I can only imagine the horrors of living in the US while the AIDS crisis raged around the country, parents fearing for their children’s safety, the LGBT community caught off-guard and working to help quell the fear and the spread of the disease, all in the face of government silence. The pain and the frustration must have been excruciating. I only know the history, not what it was like at the time. The only facts available to me are incontrovertible ones: Ronald and Nancy Reagan did nothing to advance HIV/AIDS awareness, treatment, or research in America. Right through their deaths. They declined. It wasn’t important. And it was only affecting people whose lifestyles they couldn’t condone.
I’m a woman, a person of color, what I refer to as heteroflexible, a registered Democrat who harbors mostly socialist views. I misspeak on Twitter, I correct myself when I mix metaphors, I apologize immediately when I make factual errors in essays and articles, I try to look things up when I forget them, I ask questions—instead of googling, much to some friends’ bemusement—when I want to know more about something.
I don’t have a Goldman Sachs/Clinton Foundation-funded war chest. I don’t have whole armies of staffers, analysts, pollsters, advisers, managers, interns, and lackeys telling me what to say and what not to say. I’m not running to lead the free world. I’m generally more at liberty to make mistakes about American history than Hillary Rodham Clinton.
I just marked this essay’s destination as the media section here at Queen Mob’s. I did that because my exposure to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and onward is via plays, essays, And the Band Played On, the Patient Zero episode of Radiolab. But I wrote this because I am simply a viewer. I’m an ordinary American citizen who thinks voting is a privilege that must be exercised if granted, I sit in the cheap seats. I read the news, I try to do all I can to stay informed. That’s what I tried to do all day: read pieces in BuzzFeed and the Guardian about the Reagans declining to help Rock Hudson, or their administration mocking AIDS; read tweets by people on Twitter who lived in the US in the 80s, discuss domestic policy. Despite all the 140-character bursts of opinion, anger, and frustration, what echoed in my mind was the video of the candidate who’s our best shot at overriding the votes for an over-tanned fascist tell a blatant lie on live television. I cued up the video multiple times.
And all I could do was watch.