Newsreal: Do the right thing

By Peter Kurth

Published July 14, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

To: Sandy Thurman, Czarina for National AIDS Policy, Clinton Administration, Washington, D.C.

From: An AIDS patient

Dear Sandy,

May I call you Sandy? I'm not sure how I'm supposed to address an AIDS Czarina -- "Your Tokenhood?" "Your Nothingness?" "Your Ineffectuality?" I've written books about the Romanovs, Sandy, and believe me, the Czars had a lot of power. All you've got is a title, an office and an "open door" to the president. That's what he said, anyway, when he gave you the job back in April. He said: "My door is open to her."

Of course, this is President Clinton talking, so a sentence like that could mean a lot of different things. It could mean that his door is open when it really isn't. It could mean that his door is open until somebody tells him to close it.

Anyhow, Sandy, I'm writing about the State of AIDS Forum you and I are both going to be attending in Washington on Monday, that photo-op-and-press-release jamboree that the AIDS Action Council is putting on to announce that AIDS deaths are finally declining in this country, that with protease inhibitors and other drugs, AIDS is becoming a chronic, manageable illness instead of a terrifying, fatal disease.

Of course, there are still a few wrinkles to be ironed out. A lot of Americans with AIDS won't be alive to clamber across that bridge to the 21st century the president promised he would build for all of us. Also, it's not going to be easy putting -- and keeping -- millions of people on protease inhibitors when they don't have any health insurance; when there isn't a coherent national health-care policy at all, in fact; when hospitals and outpatient clinics are being closed down right and left by corporate thugs who wouldn't know a moral principle or a social scruple if it came with a picture of Abraham Lincoln stamped on its forehead.

I'm sorry, Sandy, was that rude? You're from the South, I understand, from Atlanta, where manners count for everything. Fagades do, anyway. But when Clinton introduced you to us in April, he said you were one outspoken gal. She is passionate. She is committed. She is difficult to say no to. If that's true, Sandy, then you're just like me and a lot of my friends, except for one important thing. People find it really easy to say no to us. They've been doing it for years.

Mind you, I'm one of the lucky ones. I've been infected with HIV since 1983 or 1984, and so far I haven't died of AIDS. I'm lucky in that I'm white and I'm male, and so far the protease inhibitors are working for me. I'm gay, of course, which I never thought would be an advantage in calamity, but with AIDS it is, funnily enough. Gay white men were the ones who went down first in this epidemic, and we're the ones who rose up first to combat it. You can walk through that open door because we opened it for you, Sandy. I want you to remember that. And I want you to tell the president something from me the next time you see him.

Tell him that I've got his number; that I won't believe a word he says until he puts his money where his mouth is; until he stops reneging on every promise he's ever made to my community; until he reins in the insurance companies and the HMOs; until he stops carving up Medicaid and Medicare and stops allowing the drug lords -- of the pharmaceutical industry, Sandy, not heroin and cocaine -- to make billions of dollars off the backs of the terminally ill.

Tell him that from me, Sandy. If Ronald Reagan was the president who couldn't bring himself to say the word AIDS, Bill Clinton is the one who can't bring himself to do anything but say it. However, he speaks with forked tongue, I fear. But you -- I had some hopes for you, Sandy. Which is it going to be, Blanche Dubois or Catherine the Great? I'll be standing with the media hacks Monday morning, and I'll be asking you again. I'll be waiting for an answer.

Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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