Who started a national conversation about what?

Hillary Clinton showed up at Nancy Reagan’s funeral today and delivered some praise that could most generously be described as…odd.

In an interview with MSNBC, Clinton highlighted the former first lady’s use of her office to promote AIDS awareness, saying that “Because of both President and Mrs. Reagan — in particularly Mrs. Reagan — we started a national conversation, when, before nobody would talk about [the AIDS epidemic], nobody wanted to do anything about it.”

This depiction of Reagan’s legacy is revisionist, to say the least. Within hours, Clinton issued a correction and apology:

by default 2016-03-11 at 7.00.59 PM

As Buzzfeed’s Chris Geidner pointed out, “it is widely accepted that the Reagans were very late in acknowledging HIV/AIDS.” As he continued:

The Reagans, via Wikimedia Commons

The Reagans, via Wikimedia Commons

President Reagan did not give a major public speech about HIV/AIDS until May 1987, nearly six years after the Centers for Disease Control first began noting the emergence of the disease.

By the time Reagan spoke, Randy Shilts reported in his book, And the Band Played On, it was known that more than 36,000 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS — more than 20,000 of whom had died. Later data would show the numbers were significantly higher, with more than 41,000 dead by the end of 1987.

In 2015, BuzzFeed News published documentation showing, for the first time, that Nancy Reagan had, in 1985, declined to provide assistance requested by Rock Hudson to help fight the disease in France, with officials directing him instead to the U.S. Embassy there. Hudson died nine weeks later.

Saying that Nancy Reagan helped start a national conversation about AIDS is like saying that Richard Nixon helped start a national conversation about the abuse of executive power. Or that Philip Morris helped start a national conversation about nicotine addiction. Or that Marco Rubio is helping start a national conversation about climate change. Or that Goldman Sachs has helped start a national conversation about economic inequality. To the extent that it’s true, it’s not exactly what these folks are hoping to be remembered for at their funerals.

Since it apparently bears repeating, here’s how the Reagan White House actually felt about the AIDS epidemic. To they extent that they “started a national conversation,” that conversation was a black comedy:

[iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/yAzDn7tE1lU” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen]


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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