As America remembers the life of Ronald Reagan, it must never forget his shameful abdication of leadership in the fight against AIDS. History may ultimately judge his presidency by the thousands who have and will die of AIDS.Indifference lead to death. Remember the slogan: Silence = Death. It did.
Following discovery of the first cases in 1981, it soon became clear a national health crisis was developing. But President Reagan's response was "halting and ineffective," according to his biographer Lou Cannon. Those infected initially with this mysterious disease -- all gay men -- found themselves targeted with an unprecedented level of mean-spirited hostility.
A significant source of Reagan's support came from the newly identified religious right and the Moral Majority, a political-action group founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. AIDS became the tool, and gay men the target, for the politics of fear, hate and discrimination. Falwell said "AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals." Reagan's communications director Pat Buchanan argued that AIDS is "nature's revenge on gay men."
With each passing month, death and suffering increased at a frightening rate. Scientists, researchers and health care professionals at every level expressed the need for funding. The response of the Reagan administration was indifference.
Michael Bedwell also reminds us of that major stain on Reagan's legacy. He pointed me to an article from the Washington Post on June 2, 1987 (also available at the Post's archives):
D.C. police wearing long yellow rubber gloves arrested 64 demonstrators after the group blocked traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to protest the Reagan administration's AIDS policies. The administration's policies were also the focus of protests at the Washington Hilton hotel, where more than 6,000 researchers have gathered for the Third International Conference on AIDS.Indifference and silence. Death. Quite a legacy.
Among those arrested was Leonard P. Matlovich, a former Air Force sergeant who was expelled from the service in 1975 after admitting his homosexuality. Matlovich, who recently learned he has AIDS, wore his old Air Force jacket decorated with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star and clutched a small American flag as police handcuffed him.