Hillary Clinton's insulting AIDS revisionism: Why her praise of the Reagans feels like such a slap in the face

The Democratic frontrunner says Ronald and Nancy Reagan brought attention to the crisis. History says otherwise

Published March 11, 2016 8:48PM (EST)

Hillary Clinton   (Reuters/Randall Hill)
Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Randall Hill)

Sometimes the mistakes Hillary Clinton makes are truly baffling. Take the colossal mistake she made on Friday when she said the following about the late Nancy Reagan and AIDS while appearing on MSNBC:

Said Clinton:

"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 to do anything about 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 saying, 'Hey, we have to do something about this too.'"

The mind reels. It is difficult to imagine a more historically inaccurate and insulting way to describe the Reagan approach to AIDS than what Hillary Clinton said.

She is right in one respect: It was indeed very difficult for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s. A large part of the reason it was so difficult was because the Reagan administration essentially refused to acknowledge that the AIDS crisis was even happening until well after thousands of people had already died from the disease. Reagan's silence on the issue is so well-documented that it's hard to comprehend exactly what Hillary Clinton was thinking when she praised his handling of the crisis. But since she apparently needs a reminder of the basics, let's review some of them.

We could talk about the infamous, nauseatingly homophobic White House press briefing from October 1982, when Reagan's press secretary Larry Speakes and a roomful of reporters literally laughed off a question about AIDS, with Speakes joking, "I don't have it, do you?" Speakes added that he didn't think the White House knew anything about AIDS, which was undoubtedly true.

We could talk about the fact that Reagan didn't so much as utter the word "AIDS" until 1985, and didn't give a speech about AIDS until 1987, by which point it had killed at least 40,000 people in the United States alone.

We could talk about the fact that Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton's great low-key hero, decided to be so low-key in her approach to AIDS that she wouldn't even help her personal friend Rock Hudson get treatment when he was dying in 1985.

These things are so indisputable in 2016 that even Teen Vogue ran a scathing article about Nancy Reagan's shameful lack of attention to AIDS. Apparently, Teen Vogue has a better handle on the history of the 1980s than Hillary Clinton, who was the First Lady of Arkansas for virtually the entire decade.

Clinton's comments aren't just a blatant misrepresentation of the historical record. They're also a slap in the face to the people who actually did jumpstart the national dialogue around AIDS -- namely, the activists whose militancy, fearlessness and love of their community forced the issue into the national agenda. It seems that, in Hillary Clinton's world, their work, which paved the way for virtually every gain the LGBT community has made in the past 30 years, meant little when stacked up against the efforts of the Reagans.

It's possible that what Clinton really meant was that AIDS wasn't an issue for people like her until the president of the United States started talking about it. She has long had a somewhat tortured relationship with the gay rights movement. Her attempts to defend her past support of DOMA and opposition to same-sex marriage have become the stuff of awkward legend. But just because she might have spent years in the dark about what was happening with AIDS doesn't mean that she's allowed to distort history and insult the people who died because the president and first lady she had such kind words for couldn't be bothered to lift a finger to help, as well as the people who put their lives on the line to stand up to the Reagan administration's bigotry and ignorance. She would be wise to retract her statement in full, and fast.

By Jack Mirkinson

Jack Mirkinson is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @jackmirkinson.

MORE FROM Jack Mirkinson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aids Aids Crisis Dem Primary Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton History Hiv Nancy Reagan Ronald Reagan