Last week, we had some discussion of the early AIDS crisis, which now affects about 60 million people worldwide.

Several of you offered additional material or perspectives, so I wanted to give the topic one more day.

Thanks to the Boston Phoenix for the following.

Note that at the time of this press briefing, it had been 15 months since the New York Times ran its first story on what came to be known as AIDS.

Office of the Press Secretary


October 15, 1982

The Briefing Room

12:45pm EDT

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?


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.

Q: Does the President, does anyone in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?

MR. SPEAKES: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any –

Q: Nobody knows?

MR. SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.

Q: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping –

MR. SPEAKES: I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he’s had no – (laughter) – no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.

Q: The President doesn’t have gay plague, is that what you’re saying or what?

MR. SPEAKES: No, I didn’t say that.

Q: Didn’t say that?

MR. SPEAKES: I thought I heard you on the State Department over there. Why didn’t you stay there? (Laughter.)

Q: Because I love you Larry, that’s why (Laughter.)

MR. SPEAKES: Oh I see. Just don’t put it in those terms, Lester. (Laughter.)

Q: Oh, I retract that.

MR. SPEAKES: I hope so.

Q: It’s too late.

This transcript is taken from the prologue to Jon Cohen’s 2001 book, Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine, the full text of which can be found here.

Brian Murphy: ‘With all this talk of the homosexual population and the lack of response by the CDC or Reagan’s administration, one often fails to remember those who were not gay and became infected because of a lack of policy and prevention methods. Tens of thousands of hemophiliacs around the world were supplied with infected blood. These individuals had to choose between death without an infusion or accept the risk of infection. I know this because my brother needed the transfusion when he was twelve after falling off his bike. He died from AIDS in 1997 at the age of 23.’

Name Withheld: ‘Ten years ago my brother, a heterosexual, non-drug abuser, died of AIDS dementia after four tough years. He was not one of the ‘untouchable’ groups allowed to die (for their sins, apparently). Reagan slept while all kinds of Americans died of AIDS. When my brother died in a hospice, many of the people dying there were hemophiliacs, abandoned by their government. Reagan had the ‘bully pulpit’ but did nothing. Feel free to publish this but withhold my name; I don’t want to traumatize my family any more than they have already been traumatized.’

John Bakke: ‘I want to point out something about the figures you had in your June 9 posting. Open the PDF you linked to, and go to page 6, from which the figures were taken. The figures you list include Medicaid and Medicare. For the purposes of considering whether Reagan promoted any sort of urgent response to HIV/AIDS, these figures can be ignored; it represents non-discretionary spending on futile care for people who lay dying, waiting for effective treatments that were barely being pursued. The correct figures to cite – the money that was voluntarily allocated to research – are [much smaller]. How much damage might have been avoided if the research had been more aggressive in the mid-1980s! I’d compare those early foot-dragging years to saving for retirement: starting early has a disproportionately large impact on later results.’

B Norse: ‘Reagan stood up for the LGBT community in the 1970’s when that was really tough to do [fighting California’s Briggs Amendment that would have barred gays from teaching in public schools]. He had zero political reasons to support us and many not to. But he did, because he was a good and decent human being. In that light, I don’t buy the argument that Reagan dragged his feet because it was just gays dying.’

☞ That is a good perspective. My own assumption is that the foot-dragging was more a matter of avoiding an uncomfortable topic, and taking his cues from those around him, than any active animus toward his and Nancy’s gay friends.

But to the thousands who needlessly died miserable deaths (even a six-month acceleration in the response curve would have saved huge numbers of people), the President’s friendly optimism is little consolation. And his waiting literally years and years to publicly address the crisis, or express sympathy for the suffering . . . well, if you lived through it, week after week after week after week, it is not an easy thing to forget. With thousands of his fellow Americans dying, and millions more afraid for their own health or for the health of loved ones, this was not a small oversight.

Andy (not me, another Andy): ‘Like many gay men, you’ve embraced the myth, perpetuated by the left, that Reagan was indifferent to the AIDS Crisis. Even when confronted with budget figures, you dismiss the facts and hold tightly to your prejudices. Reagan’s Surgeon General was the predominant leader in the effort to fight AIDS in the 1980’s, and let’s face it – it doesn’t matter who was President back then, antiviral treatment didn’t exist and medical science wasn’t where it is today, and it wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for the spending that took place during Ronald Reagan’s Presidency.

‘The 40th president spoke of AIDS no later than September 17, 1985. Responding to a question on AIDS research, the president said:

[I]ncluding what we have in the budget for ’86, it will amount to over a half a billion dollars that we have provided for research on AIDS in addition to what I’m sure other medical groups are doing. And we have $100 million in the budget this year; it’ll be 126 million next year. So, this is a top priority with us. Yes, there’s no question about the seriousness of this and the need to find an answer.

‘President Reagan’s February 6, 1986 State of the Union address included this specific passage where he says the word ‘AIDS’ five times:

We will continue, as a high priority, the fight against Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). An unprecedented research effort is underway to deal with this major epidemic public health threat. The number of AIDS cases is expected to increase. While there are hopes for drugs and vaccines against AIDS, none is immediately at hand. Consequently, efforts should focus on prevention, to inform and to lower risks of further transmission of the AIDS virus. To this end, I am asking the Surgeon General to prepare a report to the American people on AIDS.

‘Did Ronald Reagan make AIDS the #1 priority during his term in office? No, he didn’t. He was busy dealing with the economy, national defense and the cold war. But you know what? To a young man coming out of the closet during the Eighties, because of the efforts of his Surgeon General I learned that I couldn’t participate in anonymous sex without taking safety precautions. Because of that, I’m alive and healthy today.

‘The revisionist history and outright lies being spewed by the Democrats are really turning me off. If I thought the right wing commentators were annoying, I’m finding the current left wing whininess downright shrill. As an officer of the Democratic Party, you need to knock some of your people upside the head and tell them to knock it off. I’m one of those swing voters and you people are really pissing me off.’

☞ Thanks, Andy. You’re right to set the record straight – a lot of people (including me, I think) have incorrectly asserted that President Reagan never publicly uttered the word until 1987. (That is the year he actually made a speech about it.) In fact, he never uttered the word in 1981, 1982, 1983, or 1984, but did utter it once in 1985 in response to a question and five times over the course of 30 seconds in 1986. Which is definitely better than nothing.

But I don’t think the failure of Democrats and others to note those six instances is willful deception or revisionism, or that it changes the larger point very much – certainly not about 1981 or 1982 or 1983 or 1984, but even, perhaps, about 1985 and 1986. It was not until 1987 (so far as I can tell) that he spent more than a minute or so on the topic in a public address.

As for the Surgeon General you credit with saving your life – and for whom I have the highest regard also – here is how the San Francisco Chronicle reported his own views:

Dr. C. Everett Koop, Reagan’s surgeon general, has said that because of “intradepartmental politics” he was cut out of all AIDS discussions for the first five years of the Reagan administration. The reason, he explained, was “because transmission of AIDS was understood to be primarily in the homosexual population and in those who abused intravenous drugs.” The president’s advisers, Koop said, “took the stand, ‘They are only getting what they justly deserve.'”



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