There is an infamous discussion from 1982 between Ronald Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes and reporter Lester Kinsolving in the White House briefing room about the then-oncoming AIDS crisis, in which Speakes cackles derisively when Kinsolving asks if the Reagan administration was taking any steps to address the disease. Now, over at Vanity Fair, you can listen to that exchange, and several others that highlight the mindset of a president who is widely agreed to have miserably failed those stricken with the disease.
The audio comes from a 7-minute documentary short entitled When AIDS Was Funny, put together by filmmaker Scott Calonico. The audio comprises three back-and-forths between Kinsolving and Speakes in 1982, 1983, and 1985. Here, via an old transcript highlighted by Buzzfeed in 2013, is the beginning of the exchange from 1982:
Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
MR. SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don’t.
MR. SPEAKES: You didn’t answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President—
MR. SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)
Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
Speakes can’t even keep a straight face at the thought of the White House addressing the “gay plague,” nor can he make it through the second question without cracking a gay joke. Both themes are present in the conversations even as the years tick on, and it’s obviously very easy to draw a line from these conversations to the Reagan administration’s abject neglect of the AIDS crisis.
This has been today’s conclusion regarding the new audio, and though it’s a correct one, it’s important to note one other unavoidable made clear in these tapes: Speakes wasn’t the only one cracking up at Kinsolving’s insistent questions about what, if anything, the Reagan administration planned to do about AIDS. Speakes’ laughter is echoed by howls from the Kinsolving’s peers, the exact people who should have... been doing exactly what Kinsolving was doing.
The danger of journalists being too arrogant to realize when a story is a story is a lesson also highlighted in the stunning new film Spotlight, which begins with longtime Boston Globe writers and editors being forced by a new boss into investigating what would eventually be a landmark movie. Anyway, fuck Ronald Reagan.
[image via Getty]