Reagan and Bush in the Age of AIDS
PBS this week aired "The Age of AIDS," perhaps the most powerful and devastating documentary on American television in years. The two part, four-hour special featured interviews and history from six continents and over a dozen countries detailing the path, the politics and the pain of 25 years of the AIDS pandemic.
Perhaps the most disturbing thread running through "The Age of AIDS" is the myopic complicity of the American radical right in the needless death and suffering of thousands worldwide. Through sins of commission and omission, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Jesse Helms and other champions of the Christian right helped ensure the spread of an unfolding global tragedy.
As the AIDS epidemic exploded across the United States to infect 250,000 Americans, President Reagan remained silent, wallet closed. A disease deemed to impact only gay Americans was no concern of the administration or the Republican leadership. On the very day in April 1983 that the CDC declared "the inadequate funding to date has seriously restricted our work and has presumably deepened the invasion of this disease into the American population," Reagan's Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler pronounced that no additional funding was necessary.
Reagan himself only magnified the growing AIDS disaster. In 1985, Reagan faced growing panic as American parents sought to remove afflicted students such as Ryan White from their childrens' schools. In preparation for a September press conference, Reagan was given talking points advising sympathy for parents and children alike and stressing that there was no danger of AIDS transmission from casual or routine contact. But Reagan had also received a memo from then White House aide and current Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts that flew in the face of scientific consensus:
"I would not like to see the President reassuring the public on this point, only to find out he was wrong later. There is much to commend the view that we should assume AIDS can be transmitted through casual or routine contact, as is true with many viruses, until it is demonstrated that it cannot be, and no scientist has said AIDS definitively cannot be so transmitted."
Instead of reassuring an anxious public and halting growing discriminaion, a clearly uncomfortable Reagan told the audience:
"I'm glad I'm not faced with that problem today and I can well understand the plight of the parents and how they feel about it...And yet medicine has not come forth unequivocally and said 'This we know for a fact, that it is safe.' And until they do I think we have to do the best we can with this problem. I can understand both sides of it."
The next day, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and the chief scientists at the National Institutes of Health called a news conference to correct President Reagan's tragic error and confirm that AIDS was a blood-borne sexually transmitted disease not spread by casual contact.
Not wanting to anger his allies on the Christian right when it came to the "gay plague," Reagan remained silent on AIDS throughout most of his presidency. In what would be the first high-impact celebrity intervention among Republicans, it took a plea from Elizabeth Taylor to get Ronald Reagan to deliver a speech at the 1987 meeting of amfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
Meanwhile in Congress, Senator Jesse Helms and the forces of the religious right ensured that federal funds could not be spent on any educational materials that "promote or encourage homosexual sexual activities." The so-called Helms Amendment is still in effect today.
The tide began to turn in the 1990's as Christian evangelicals such as Franklin Graham saw ministering to those sick with AIDS as both a moral imperative and opportunity to proselytize. But Graham, who with U2 frontman Bono would later help convert Jesse Helms to his cause, had a clear mission, especially in Africa. Opposed to a Clinton approach Graham called "Let's just cover the world with condoms," the head of Samaritan's Purse described his alternative:
"I tried to encourage, first of all, the church of Jesus Christ worldwide. In every country around the world you have the church. In most of Africa, not only do you have the church, but there are church-related hospitals that can dispense medicines, that can provide testing, that can provide treatment. We need to enlist these hospitals. We need to enlist these churches in this fight against HIV/AIDS. We don't need to be pouring this money into some of these governments who are going to squander the money."
Throughout "The Age of AIDS," Bono showed perhaps the only ways to appeal to the religious right blocking the funds, educational materials, condoms and treatment so badly needed throughout Africa and Asia. In 2002, Bono used scripture to convert the recalcitrant Jesse Helms. After Bono related Jesus' words from Matthew:23 ("But as much as you do this to the least of these, you do it unto me"), a tearful Helms put his arms around him and said "I want to give you a blessing."
With President Bush, Bono not only used the pulpit, he used politics. With the Iraq war looming in early 2003, Bono offered President Bush the prospect of a global American public relations triumph by announcing a massive commitment to fighting AIDS:
"Maybe it's smart to just help people with these crushing problems. These drugs are great advertisements for us in the West, for our ingenuity, our technology, our innovation, particularly in the United States. I said that to President Bush. I said, 'Paint them red, white and blue if you want, but these drugs are the best advertisement you are going to get right now, and that might be important right now.'"
Shortly thereafter, President Bush shocked the world by announcing a five-year, $15 billion dollar AIDS program for Africa and the Caribbean in his 2003 State of the Union Address.
That aid, of course, came with strings attached. Only $1 billion would go to the UN's Global AIDS Fund. Over $1 billion would be distributed through faith-based organizations, such as Graham's Samaritan's Purse. Worse still, the Bush administration and allies such as Kansas Senator Sam Brownback followed the lead these religious groups in balking at the use of condoms (the "C" in the Ugandan ABC formula of "Abstinence, Be Faithful, Condoms"). As a result, Brazil declined to accept Americans AIDS funding which barred programs involving condoms. Pioneering Ugandan AIDS activist Noerine Kaleeba could only ponder in amazement:
"I have met President Bush twice. He strikes me as a very brilliant, very passionate and very caring person. But when I contrast the President Bush that I have met with the policies and practices that are coming out of the United States, I can't reconcile it."
The Clinton administration, of course, is hardly blameless. President Clinton dramatically ramped American spending on AIDS, and had Vice President Gore lead a UN Security Council session on the AIDS threat But Clinton, too, balked in the face of conservative pressure when it came to needle exchange programs. Despite overwhelming evidence that needle exchange slashed AIDS rates among IV drug abusers without encouraging new drug use, Clinton backed off on pursuing federal programs. (In his excellent book, "The Republican War on Science," author Chris Mooney relates HHS Secretary Donna Shalala's outrage over the decision.)
Twenty five years after the full-scale outbreak of the AIDS epidemic, much progress is being made. Drug cocktails to manage the disease are evolving and programs from the UN, the U.S. government and groups such as the Clinton Foundation are helping bring them to the poorest of the poor around the world. But with millions dead and up to 70,000,000 more infected, it did not have to be this way.
History will not be kind to those on the right who were so completely wrong.