Five takeaways from the Clinton-Reagan-AIDS history controversy


The comments by a former First Lady about the death of another former First Lady has unleashed a political row over the nation’s slow response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

In commentary provided by former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for MSNBC during Friday morning’s televised memorial service for former First Lady Nancy Reagan, Mrs. Clinton said, in relevant part, “The other point I wanted to make, too : It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980's. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular Mrs. Reagan, we started a national conversation when before nobody would talk about, nobody wanted to do anything about it. And you know, that, too, is something that I really appreciate : 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.'”

Mrs. Clinton’s statements were immediately portrayed as false. As noted by Michael Specter in a Daily Comment published online by The New Yorker, a magazine with a deliberately cautious reputation, the Reagan record on HIV/AIDS was described as flat-out deadly : “President Reagan’s first speech on the subject wasn’t until May 31, 1987. By then, more than twenty-five thousand people, the majority of them gay men, had died in the United States.”

Because of Mrs. Clinton’s blatantly inaccurate description of the Reagan response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, reaction from some leading HIV/AIDS activists was swift, particularly by survivors of the early years of the pandemic, when members, families, and friends of the LGBT community were forced to attend multiple funerals on the same day for people, who had died of AIDS. For those, who lost loved ones to AIDS, Mrs. Clinton’s praise of the Reagan response to HIV/AIDS was seen as painful and callous. Though HIV/AIDS affects all demographics, the LGBT community, particularly gay men, were hardest hit, especially in the beginning.

In an interview with Slate, one of the nation’s foremost HIV/AIDS activists, Larry Kramer, said of both the late Mrs. and President Ronald Reagan, “She and Ronnie weren’t going to, in any way, talk about AIDS, because they have a ballet dancer son whom the world believes to be gay and which they don’t want to confront,” adding of Mrs. Clinton that, “I’m just so disappointed in her that I may just vote for Bernie. And I’m hearing that from a lot of gay people. The gay population is up in arms over this. I don’t think that she realizes that this is a big issue for us, what she has said in her stupidity.”

In the time since Mrs. Clinton made her false comments about the late Mrs. Reagan’s work on AIDS, Mrs. Clinton has issued two apologies, the first a brief statement issued over Twitter, and the second, a longer review of the nation’s slow response to HIV/AIDS posted on Medium. The two statements have acted to ease Mrs. Clinton’s offensive comments for some, but not all, of the most vocal members of the LGBT community. For example, in commenting about Mrs. Clinton’s second attempt at an apology, Mr. Kramer posted on Facebook that, “Her statement covers everything that we’ve been fighting for. By delivering it she should be supported by every GBLT person in America. Bernie who ?” Gary Barton, a former executive of a large entertainment corporation, responded to Mr. Kramer’s post by rejecting Mrs. Clinton’s apology, writing, in relevant part, “I am past the point where I want to be grateful for scraps.”

Under simmering and conflicting tensions, here are five takeaways from the Clinton-Reagan-AIDS flap.

1/. Some of Clinton’s LGBT supporters are in hiding.

When Chad Griffin, president of the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign, responded via social media to Mrs. Clinton’s revisionist comments about the Reagan record on HIV/AIDS, Mr. Griffin remarks represented an intentionally cramped reading of the late Mrs. Reagan’s absence from any role in the fight against HIV/AIDS and made no acknowledgement of Mrs. Clinton’s historically inaccurate statements. Mr. Griffin’s narrow reading of the situation left many unsatisfied, with holders of several Twitter accounts questioning the appropriateness of the Human Rights Campaign’s endorsement of Mrs. Clinton.

Dominic Lowell, the Clinton campaign’s liaison to the LGBT community, and the Clinton campaign’s press team did not answer separate interview requests made by Progress Queens. Similarly, requests made by Progress Queens to GLAAD (formerly known as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), and to one of its vice presidents went unanswered.

Locally, the Queens LGBT delegation to the New York City Council, Councilmember Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) and Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Woodside), did not answer requests made by Progress Queens for interviews, representing a break with the past. It’s not like Councilmember Dromm, for example, to shy away from addressing national LGBT issues. In December 2010, he issued a joint statement on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which is no longer available online, and later gave a televised interview on the issue. He similarly commented about the Supreme Court’s reversal of the Defense of Marriage Act. Councilmember Van Bramer has likewise been readily available to speak about LGBT issues, such as marriage equality. All the more revealing is that elected LGBT government officials would remain silent about Mrs. Clinton’s poor LGBT record, even after NPR talk show host Terry Gross confronted Mrs. Clinton in 2014 over the political calculus that determined her politically-expedient past opposition to marriage equality. Yet, on the issue of Mrs. Clinton’s inaccurate statements about the Reagan record on AIDS, the Queens LGBT delegation improbably remained mum.

2/. The broader LGBT community is in turmoil over the Clinton campaign.

In the face of silence from some politically-connected LGBT leaders, the remainder of the LGBT community found themselves grappling with how to respond to the Reagan record on HIV/AIDS without seemingly being critical of the front-runner in the race for the Democratic Party presidential primary.

In spite of the two apologetic statements issued by Mrs. Clinton, some leaders in the LGBT community tried to delegitimise any controversy. For example, Zeke Stokes, a vice president of GLAAD, wrote on Twitter that, “There is simply nothing to gain by disparaging #NancyReagan at this point in history. She was of a different time. The world has moved on.” Mr. Stokes’ own comments attracted enough criticism that he subsequently had to walk them back.

The tension failed to subside for others, who viewed Mrs. Clinton’s second attempt an apology as being the work product of a campaign communication official and not something personally and sincerely written by Mrs. Clinton herself.

In an interview with Progress Queens, the international transgender civil rights activist Pauline Park said that typically a large-scale presidential campaign such as Mrs. Clinton’s operation tasks sensitive press issues to professional communication staffers. As such, the intricate writing of the second apology should have come from such a professional writer, Ms. Park said. Moreover, given the nature of Mrs. Clinton’s comments, Ms. Park questioned Mrs. Clinton’s lack of judgment. It wasn’t that Mrs. Clinton had said that the late Mrs. Reagan had no record of a proper AIDS response, but that by, instead, going on at length by saying that the late Mrs. Reagan had inspired a conversation around HIV/AIDS, Mrs. Clinton was engaging in a narrative that was “patently false.” When Ms. Park was asked whether Mrs. Clinton’s second apology should be looked at for the messaging of what work remained to be done around HIV/AIDS, as has been noted by others, including by Mr. Griffin, Ms. Park said of Mrs. Clinton’s second apology, “It’s impossible for me to give her the benefit of the doubt.”

3/. This is one of Clinton’s many acts of rewriting history.

This is the second time when Mrs. Clinton has made controversial televised remarks that have triggered accusations of historic revisionism by the LGBT community. As reported in October 2015 by Progress Queens, Mrs. Clinton made revisionist comments during a television interview to justify why the Clinton administration each of enacted the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy against gay and lesbian members of the U.S. Armed Services and signed into law the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act, defending the regressive actions as preventing worst actions being planned by Republicans, an explanation that many LGBT community activists and leaders described as untrue.

As leaders of the LGBT community now come to terms with Mrs. Clinton’s revisionist comments about the Reagan record on HIV/AIDS, the Democratic Party primary electorate has been reviewing Mrs. Clinton’s broader record on accuracy and truthfulness. Voters from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party expressed indignation after Mrs. Clinton had intimated that her primary challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), was absent when she had been advocating for Hillarycare in the 1990’s. Almost immediately, Arianna Jones, the deputy communications director for the Sanders campaign, tweeted a photograph of a thank you note sent by former First Lady Clinton to the Vermont Senator, recognizing him for his “commitment to real healthcare access for all Americans.” Progressive activists seized on Ms. Jones’ photograph in an effort to inform Democratic Party primary votes about the truth of Sen. Sander’s solidarity with Mrs. Clinton’s healthcare reform efforts in the 1990’s. 

Furthermore and almost simultaneously, Mrs. Clinton has had to defend itself about the removal of a passage from the paperback edition of her autobiography pertaining to the 2009 coup that both overthrew the government of Honduras and unleashed violence in its wake. Because of the coup’s correlation with the violence that has forced refugees to leave Honduras, resulting in immigration to the United States, the Clinton campaign has sought to downplay any actions that could reflect negatively on her presidential campaign, particularly on the hot-button issue of immigration.

The politicisation of the truth about other issues, like Mrs. Clinton’s use of the term “superpredator” and the use of her private e-mail server, threatens to aggravate many voting blocs key to success in the Democratic Party primary election process.

4/. The Clinton campaign is engaging in media arbitrage.

Perhaps because many political pundits predict that it is still possible for Mrs. Clinton to ultimately win enough delegates to secure the Democratic Party nomination, despite the strong showing of Sen. Sanders, the delivery of Mrs. Clinton’s misinformation may coïncide with a deliberate efforting to appeal to voters in upcoming primary elections and, later, in the general election.

Ms. Park, the LGBT activist, is one of the most politically astute community organisers in New York City. She received a doctorate degree in political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, her advocacy has included work on behalf of the group, New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, and she was on the steering committee that led the campaign for the 2004 passage of the Dignity in All Schools Act in the face of a hostile Bloomberg administration. The landmark legislation bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.*

In Ms. Park’s objective analysis of the politics facing Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, Ms. Park said that Mrs. Clinton may be trying to appeal to Reagan Democrats expected to vote in the Illinois and Ohio primaries next Tuesday and to moderate Republicans, generally, by having made Reagan-friendly comments during Mrs. Reagan’s memorial service. Separately, Ms. Park noted that Mrs. Clinton has a pattern of making beneficial but inaccurate statements on television, but Mrs. Clinton’s corrections or retractions have not been made in the same medium. The different channels of distribution reach different audiences, and critics of Mrs. Clinton’s revisionism say that sophisticated marketing data allow professionally-managed campaigns to know how to reach voters according to messaging that is optimised for old media versus new media.

Since television news programs typically now avoid complex journalism that requires nuance and valuable airtime for analysis, questions about Mrs. Clinton’s inaccurate statements may not receive television news coverage, particularly since the old Fairness Doctrine for broadcast license holders was eliminated in 1987 under the Reagan administration.

5/. Clinton risks alienating key supporters, but it’s too early to predict the Quinnification of the Clinton campaign.

Mr. Kramer, one of the nation’s preeminent HIV/AIDS activists, was a vocal member of the advocacy group, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP. Yet, his acceptance of Mrs. Clinton’s second apology does not necessarily reflect the position of an activist group that was formed with a dedication to radical autonomy. Until such time as ACT UP issues a public statement, it’s not known if the group will take a position on the latest Clinton controversy. As of early Sunday evening, ACT UP had yet to issue a statement on the group’s Facebook page. On the contrary, some of the group’s Facebook posts, like a link to a related article published by The Washington Blade, have attracted diverse opinions ranging from acceptance of Mrs. Clinton’s apology to its outright rejection.

Speaking of the late Mrs. Reagan’s record on HIV/AIDS, Ms. Park noted how Mrs. Reagan didn’t just stay silent in the face of countless deaths, but Mrs. Reagan denied help to one of her Hollywood friends, the actor Rock Hudson, who was dying of AIDS in 1985. Ms. Park recounted how Mrs. Reagan turned her back on him after he had asked the White House for help in his efforts to seek special medical treatment from a particular hospital in Paris. “For Hillary Clinton to cast the Reagans as heroes is shocking,” Ms. Park said of Mrs. Clinton’s comments. Ms. Park noted that when she speaks generally with other LGBT activists about Mrs. Clinton’s poor LGBT record, Ms. Park said that she is invariably accused by her friends of engaging in hyperbole. Yet, Ms. Park said, “If Cruz, Rubio, or Trump had made those comments,” referring to the leading Republican Party primary contenders Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and billionaire New York real estate developer Donald Trump, “my friends would be denouncing them hourly.”

It may be too early to predict whether this fracture of support for Mrs. Clinton from the LGBT community may portend trouble for her presidential campaign. The last time the LGBT community experienced a political splintering was in the 2013 New York City mayoral race, when factions of the LGBT community opposed the election of out lesbian Christine Quinn as mayor. Because New York has generally been described as being on the vanguard of activism, any political fracturing amongst New York LGBT activists may spill out onto the national stage.

Ms. Park was one of the leaders of a faction of LGBT opponents to the Quinn campaign. During her interview with Progress Queens, Ms. Park noted that Mrs. Clinton enjoys two distinct advantages over Ms. Quinn’s failed campaign. First, on the date of the mayoral primary, Ms. Quinn faced four or five major opponents, whereas Mrs. Clinton only faces one, giving Mrs. Clinton an obvious benefit. Second, Ms. Quinn’s campaign was hobbled by her close association to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R-New York City), who was not popular with Democratic Party voters at the end of his controversial third term ; in contrast, Mrs. Clinton is campaigning by proverbially “hugging” President Barack Obama, who, Ms. Park said, remains relatively popular with Democratic Party primary voters this year. These factors show that Mrs. Clinton may still pull off the nomination, even if she alienates key voting blocs, Ms. Park said, adding that if Mrs. Clinton does win, it may be by a narrower margin.

“I don’t know if this gaffe is enough to dislodge LGBT support, but it has been enough for the community to question her character and commitment to the community,” Ms. Park said, before she noted that for primary voters for whom the issue of trustworthiness was important, those voters have been known to support Sen. Sanders. Indeed, according to an exit poll of New Hampshire primary voters, for the 34 per cent. of voters, who said that honesty was the most important factor in the presidential race, 92 per cent. of those voters cast their ballots for Sen. Sanders, according to a report published by The Washington Post.

Ironically, during the lead-up to the 2013 mayoral Democratic Party primary, former Mayor Ed Koch (D-New York City) passed away. In the wake of his death, Ms. Quinn sidestepped former Mayor Koch’s own Reaganesque response to the AIDS pandemic, triggering a backlash from HIV/AIDS and LGBT activists.  On the day of the Democratic Party mayoral primary, Ms. Quinn was rejected by 85 per cent. of voters.

(*) CORRECTION :  This article was updated to correctly refer to Pauline Park's membership in the steering committee that led the campaign to pass the Dignity in All Schools Act.

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