In an interview conducted at Nancy Reagan’s funeral today, Hillary Clinton recounted a version of history that didn’t happen, lauding the former first lady’s “low key advocacy” for the cause of HIV/AIDS awareness. “Low key” is one way of putting it. In fact, the Reagan White House is infamous for its lengthy, deadly silence on the epidemic.
Clinton’s remarks came after an extended explanation of Nancy Reagan’s efforts to expand stem cell research after her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimers. Then, in a bizarre turn, Clinton began talking about AIDS in the 1980s, a topic anyone looking to remain civil and complimentary would go far out of their way to avoid at the funeral of Nancy Reagan:
“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular, Mrs. Reagan, we started national conversation when before no one would talk about it, no one wanted to do anything about it, and that too is something that really appreciated, 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.’”
It’s almost tempting to interpret this as withering, devastating sarcasm—the Reagans “started a national conversation about AIDS” in the same sense that George W. Bush “started a national conversation” about Iraq.
In reality, the Reagans were infamously, disastrously silent on AIDS—as President, Ronald Reagan spoke more about UFOs than HIV, and didn’t even say the word in a public address until 1987, by which point it had killed tens of thousands of Americans. The virus was quite literally a joke inside the Reagan White House. Whatever “advocacy” of Nancy’s Clinton is dreaming up here must’ve been low-key to the point of non-existence—just last year it was reported that she ignored her Hollywood friend Rock Hudson’s pleas for help as he himself died from AIDS. It’s hard for one ugly episode to stand out among so many ugly aspects of the Reagan administration, but Nancy and Ronald’s deliberate silence on one of the defining public health crises of the era is surely near the top of any list. What Clinton is saying isn’t just untrue, but erases the deadly legacy of the Reagan era.
Peter Staley, an HIV/AIDS activist and founder of Treat Action Group, who was diagnosed with AIDS-related complex in 1985, told Gawker, “Thank God I’m not a single issue voter, or she would have lost my vote with this insulting and farcical view of early AIDS history.”
Update: The Clinton campaign has released the following incoherent statement, indicating that Hillary “misspoke” when she lauded the nonexistent HIV/AIDS advocacy record of Nancy and Ronald Reagan: