The Savagery of Reagan

by Corey Robin on November 10, 2012

In October 1982, when I was a sophomore in high school, this conversation transpired at a press briefing conducted by Larry Speakes, spokesman for Ronald Reagan.

Journalist: Larry, does the President have any response to the announcement [from] the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?

Speakes: What’s AIDS?

Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as the “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?

Speakes: I don’t have it. Do you? [Laughter]

It goes without saying that the savagery of this exchange belies the genteel portraits of Reagan-era conservatism that are so often served up to us by the likes of, well, everyone. What’s more striking in this case is just how widely shared that cruelty could be.



rf 11.10.12 at 3:18 am

The rights rhetoric is always vile, sure, but how would the US governments response have been different under Carter?


bjk 11.10.12 at 3:18 am

“It goes without saying” is often used in the place where the argument belongs. Larry Speakes is not Reagan or Reagan-era conservatism, so it doesn’t go without saying.


Chaz 11.10.12 at 3:30 am

Bjk needs to look up “spokesman” in a dictionary.


Corey Robin 11.10.12 at 3:30 am

On the general question of the foolishness of the notion of a genteel Reagan-era conservatism: It does, in fact, go without saying if you’ve written on the topic — and made the case — many times, and if your writing on the topic — and making of the case — has been discussed many times, including on this blog. On the more specific question of the awfulness of Reagan’s response to the AIDS crisis: again, it does, in fact, go without saying; it’s not even remotely controversial. On the even more specific question of whether Speakes here speaks for Reagan: well, he was Reagan’s spokesperson, so…


Corey Robin 11.10.12 at 3:31 am

Chaz #3: Beat me to it.


Patrick 11.10.12 at 3:38 am

And a book on syntax.

Reagan’s spokesman is not Reagan or Reagan-era conservatism, but the exchange does pretty obviously clash with the modern rosy-eyed descriptions of Reagan-era conservatism…which is why Corey Robin said “belies the genteel portraits”. Reagan is not the only historical figure who can change our impression of the conservatism in his era.

Maybe that association is not a fair one(although I think it would hard to argue that Reagan’s spokesman was not a Reagan-era conservative), but it goes without saying that the association does belie the portrait.


rf 11.10.12 at 3:40 am

Fair enough. Was genuinely curious whether homophobia was institutionalised within the US Government bureaucracy and whether a different President would have made a difference but, in fairness, I should probably do some research first. Still trying to work out concept of US Presidential election being meaningless (in what contexts etc) in mainstream pol sci and the way its discussed around here. (And reality of Obama Presidency)


rf 11.10.12 at 3:41 am

A lot of that reads slightly incoherent and rushed, but can be worked out with minimal effort!


Corey Robin 11.10.12 at 3:48 am

rf #7: I wasn’t responding to you but to bjk after you. In terms of policy, yours is a very fair question. Gays and lesbians were in fact purged from the federal government throughout the entire Cold War era, and acc. to Alex Ross’s article, from which I pulled the Speakes exchange, they were “barred” from serving in government (don’t know if this was a legal ban or what). So it could very well be that any president pre-ACT UP would have had a similar response. And my point about the press corps laughing , in fact, was to suggest that on this particular bit of savagery, the Reagan White House was probably not alone.


PJW 11.10.12 at 3:59 am

Makes me think of Randy Shilts and his fine book And the Band Played On.


rf 11.10.12 at 4:04 am

Ah okay, sorry for sounding defensive. I’ll have a read of the linked article properly. (The eight pages put me of initially!)


William Timberman 11.10.12 at 5:09 am

Reagan’s savagery was quite apparent to the classes of people he painted a bullseye on, gays being only one of those classes. Listening to his denunciatory speeches, and his bullying press conference quips when he was governor of California, I often felt — for good reason — like a Jew caught up in the crowd at a Nazi rally. Unfortunately, the media never interviews his victims. Historians should be more meticulous.


Meredith 11.10.12 at 5:56 am

I have trouble imagining why anyone under the age of 60 coming to this site would need educating about not just Reagan but the larger 1980’s world’s attitudes towards being gay and towards AID’s in its earliest days (which were pre- the HIV-positive and “full-blown” AID’s distinction — there WAS no practical distinction since drugs to prevents the onset of AID’s hadn’t been developed). Trouble imagining why, but no trouble recognizing the actual need. Still, what kind of historical amnesia is this, when the most recent past appears almost as remote as the Middle Ages?

Meant as a sincere question (even though I have a few ideas about possible answers), not as a criticism of doing the strangely necessary work of education.


Murray Reiss 11.10.12 at 5:56 am

Interesting timing — I just finished watching a great documentary called “Vito” about Vito Russo, a co-founder of ACT-UP (and author of “The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Cinema”) and it had a clip of that very press conference. The amount of blood on Reagan’s hands is just astonishing. At the same time as he ignored AIDS he was pumping money into the contras in Nicaragua & the death squads of El Salvador and Guatemala. And none of it mattered to all those people who elected him president twice. A phrase that keeps popping up in my head these days is “a day of reckoning.” It never seems to come.


BenP 11.10.12 at 7:56 am

I agree with bjk, what was Don (speed it up) Regan and Joan Quigley’s views on AIDS?


Phil 11.10.12 at 8:55 am

Unfortunately, the media never interviews his victims

This says something similar.

As late as 1986, I remember official advice from the council where I worked to the effect that AIDS absolutely could not be spread by simple contact… but that it made good sense to wash your dishes in really, really hot water, so better do that anyway. And this was a very left-wing & socially responsible council – scaremongering was the last thing they wanted to do. For a long time people only had the vaguest idea about what AIDS was. And if you couple that genuine lack of knowledge with complacency and callous indifference to the victims, then paint a big smile on top, you’ve got Ronnie. 1980, 84, 88…


Rogers 11.10.12 at 9:42 am

It shouldn’t be seen as specific to either Reagan or the era. The Republicans just this week came within a whisker of tossing Obama running on a more or less transparent and unapologetic campaign of Social Darwinism and repeal of not merely the New Deal but large portions of Post-Enlightenment Western Culture. About half the population is perfectly willing to enable monsters. You would have heard the press emitting the same sort of indulgent chuckles at President Romneys first post victory press conference.


Manta 11.10.12 at 9:56 am

I thought that a spokeperson’s main job was putting a paint of respectability on the policies of his masters.


patrick 11.10.12 at 10:01 am

It is a curiosity that, given the homophobia that was certainly present in mainstream British society at the time, the UK Conservative Government’s response to the AIDS epidemic was, by and large, very sensible.


Chris Bertram 11.10.12 at 10:11 am

The policy response to AIDS in the UK was fairly sensible, though remember that the Tory election campaign of 1987 which focused on the “loony left” exploited homophobic hysteria and they also passed Section 28 in 1988.


christian_h 11.10.12 at 10:34 am

To answer Meredith (13.): As someone who was 7 when Reagan was elected, and lived in Germany at the time I thank Corey for posting this. I mean I knew abstractly that Reagan’s response to AIDS was awful, and hated the man on principle and foreign policy already, but this level of callousnes is still news to me.


Anon. 11.10.12 at 10:35 am

12 posts in, already Godwin’d. Hah!


Alison P 11.10.12 at 11:30 am

I worked on a research project for the UK govt in the 1980s, which was honest – albeit unadvertised – research into the sexual behaviour of gay men, to model risky behaviour and develop a strategy for spreading word of damage-limiting behaviour. I hope that summary makes sense. I personally interviewed a lot of guys in clubs like Rockshots.

Why was this agreed and fully funded? IMHO because the UK govt, though bonkers and right wing, included a number of gay men who were friends with people in the Terence Higgins Trust, and in general were open and comfortable with their colleagues. Also, religion has a much weaker influence in British right-wing circles.


Phil 11.10.12 at 11:36 am

The UK government’s response to AIDS wasn’t bad, but it could have been better – the “AIDS – don’t die of ignorance” campaign was much stronger on dramatic imagery than specifics. I remember a radio comedy skit at the time that went something like this –
– Got this leaflet through the door today. “Don’t die of ignorance.”
– “Don’t die of ignorance.” Don’t. Die. Of ignorance.
Ignorance, yeah.
– Don’t die of ignorance. Don’t die… of ignorance. Makes you think.
Yeah, makes you think all right.
– Don’t. Die… of ignorance. Wow.
– Don’t die of ignorance. I was just thinking, though…
– What’s it mean?


J. Otto Pohl 11.10.12 at 11:48 am

To be fair in 1982 knowledge about the disease was much more limited than it is today. Everybody, not just politicians were far more ignorant at that time than they are today. Yes, the UK had a much better response to the disease than the US, but the UK also has a national health care system. Plus there are the factors given by Alison P. But, pointing to homophobic statements made by Republican politicians in the 1980s does not really make any profound point. Yes, they and most of the US population including registered Democrats were less enlightened than the CT posters today. So what? I get the point that you think Reagan was uniquely wicked, but this is not really evidence towards the unique part. It is also not very profound. Is the entire Reagan administration and presumably all registered Republicans and Reagan Democrats who voted for him to be simply summed up in the single word of being “savage” without any recognition of anything more complex or nuanced?


Bucky F 11.10.12 at 12:16 pm

Mr. Pohl, the point is that Reagan is not today considered an embarrassment from the ancient age of 1982. No one looks at Reagan and says (as one might of, say, John C. Calhoun) “oh, sure, we call that savagery today; but he was a product of his times.”


novakant 11.10.12 at 12:45 pm

About half the population is perfectly willing to enable monsters.

Way more than half:

83% in favor of drone strikes
70% in favor of Guantanamo


William Timberman 11.10.12 at 2:45 pm

Anon. @ 22

When the head of your government makes a habit in his public utterances of calling certain classes of people vermin, the end of civil society isn’t hard to predict. Maybe Reagan just thought he was being clever, and scoring a few points agains his political opponents, but the viciousness implicit in the kind of scapegoating he routinely engaged in, and the sense of entitlement it gave to vigilantes among right-wing conservative groups, led directly to Pat Buchanan’s call in 1992 for a Kulturkampf against liberals, and in 2012, to things like this. In California as it was then, the consequences were relatively minor. In South Carolina, Kansas, or Arizona as they are today, the consequences are everywhere you look. Smirking about Godwin’s law is all well and good, but if the shoe actually fits…. (You don’t have to read Hitler in the original German to notice the similarities; it’s enough to understand that bullying is a bad thing in any language.)


Uncle Kvetch 11.10.12 at 3:13 pm

What we heard all through the Reagan years was that people tended to oppose his policies but like the guy, because he was so gosh-darn likable. And as the era recedes further into history, the conventional wisdom is gradually settling into “Everybody loved Reagan (with a healthy subtext of ‘why oh why can’t we have a president like that again’?).” It’s something you can hear from any number of left-of-center Americans today, especially those who are too young to have been there, or weren’t directly in the line of fire.

As a gay man who came out in 1986, I think it can’t be pointed out enough that in terms of actual policy, Reagan represented the same kind of vicious cretinism that we associate with today’s nuttiest wingnuts.


brandon 11.10.12 at 3:21 pm

I agree with bjk, what was Don (speed it up) Regan and Joan Quigley’s views on AIDS?

lol, maybe try Ed Meese or James Watt. Reagan had a bunch of cretinous shits in his cabinet. Cretinous on a number of issues. Look it up. It’s super easy. You can even restrict your research materials entirely to Bloom County strips. That was how that administration worked! Sunshine up front, and one step back, there were the creeps.


phosphorious 11.10.12 at 3:23 pm

“What we heard all through the Reagan years was that people tended to oppose his policies but like the guy, because he was so gosh-darn likable.”

God save us from Presidents-You’d-Like-to-Have-A-Beer-With


dsquared 11.10.12 at 3:25 pm

I think the most revealing bit of that extract is “[laughter]” to be honest …


Johannes 11.10.12 at 3:30 pm

In December 2010, Dr. Paul Zeitz wrote: “President Obama introduced the watershed National HIV/AIDS Strategy — a collaborative roadmap for policymakers and private groups to reduce HIV infections, bolster treatment and decrease HIV-related health disparities. But the Administration has severely underfunded AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP) for the poor, with more than 2,500 people now on waiting lists for medication.”

That’s just one example. Obama has been at best indifferent when it comes to AIDS/HIV policy. You can berate Reagan’s dead corpse for his press flack’s quotes from 30 years ago all you want, and I would be at the front of the line doing the berating. I was a teenager when those remarks you quoted from Larry Speakes were uttered and I well remember the cold hostility and willful ignorance of the Reagan Administration when it came to all of the people who were dying in the early days of the pandemic.

But that’s history. What’s happening in November 2012, for the 1.2 million people with HIV/AIDS living in the US, a third of whom aren’t getting any form of treatment? “It goes without saying” that Obama’s record on HIV/AIDS is nothing to write home about. In many respects, George W. Bush was better on HIV/AIDS policy than Obama, and that’s pathetic.


Phil 11.10.12 at 3:33 pm

+1 to Uncle Kvetch. I’d forgotten quite how much I hated Reagan (and why). Thinking of all the political leaders I’ve hated, Blair always seemed quite interestingly complex and flakey; Thatcher’s drivenness inspires similarly mixed (although strongly negative) emotions; and Bush II was just a moron. (I’d probably hate Cheney more if he’d spent more time above ground.)

But Reagan… dear Lord, Reagan. He was the dark heart of the Republican Party – a kind of earlier and horrifically successful version of Sarah Palin. A Labour-voting deep politics aficionado friend of mine was practically breaking out the champagne for Bush Sr in 1988. When I pointed out that (a) we knew lots of bad stuff about GHWB and (b) neither side in the Yankee/Cowboy wars was actually the good guys (and he was the one who’d turned me on to Oglesby), he said that at least the Yankees could read.

There’s a reason that song was called “Ignoreland” – it’s the invincible ignorance of Reagan & his kind that sticks in my mind. They’d learnt nothing… and they weren’t going to start now.


Uncle Kvetch 11.10.12 at 4:07 pm

a kind of earlier and horrifically successful version of Sarah Palin

Well put.

Now, just to add some nuance to my earlier comment, it’s worth pointing out that there’s little to no evidence that Reagan was personally homophobic. On the contrary, he spoke out publicly against the Briggs Initiative, a 1978 referendum that would have mandated the firing of all openly gay teachers in the California public school system. And this at a time when he was courting the theocratic right in preparation for his 1980 campaign. His opposition, as “even the very conservative former governor,” was instrumental in defeating the initiative.

And of course it was always an open secret that Ron & Nancy had lots of close gay friends from their years in Hollywood.

Now, how does one square that with the fact that the man couldn’t be brought to utter the word “AIDS” in public, even while said gay friends had been dropping like flies for several years? Beats me.

God save us from Presidents-You’d-Like-to-Have-A-Beer-With

When electoral politics is a matter of “How does this person make me feel?” rather than “What will this person do?”, these are the kinds of results we can expect.


Sonic Charmer 11.10.12 at 4:08 pm

Ah, how facile it is to feel superior to people encountering AIDS for the first time in 1982.


hannah 11.10.12 at 4:24 pm

[aeiou] Yes.
As if Act Up directed anger only at Republicans.
And 23% of self identified gays voted for GHW Bush.
Liberal heterosexuals should read Larry Kramer.
Again: Carl Channel.
Nothing on google on Reagan’s “Crimson Cabinet” bu I remember the gossip and the jokes.


LFC 11.10.12 at 4:32 pm

rf @7:
Still trying to work out concept of US Presidential election being meaningless (in what contexts etc) in mainstream pol sci and the way its discussed around here.

I think I know what you’re trying to get at, but choice of words is poor: “mainstream pol sci” wd not say pres. election is “meaningless.” For ex, John Sides would not say that. If he did say that, he wouldn’t be able to justify co-authoring a bk on 2012 election and turning out a stream of posts about poll aggregation, forecasting, the stupidity of pundits who are not adequately informed about the wonders of statistical/quantitative political science, how statistical political science is entirely compatible w normative concerns, etc. Indeed the career of Sides and other quant-ish students of US politics rests, it cd be argued, on the assumption that elections are meaningful (albeit perhaps in a certain way). If they’re not meaningful, why spend your career studying them? Unless you want to study meaningless things. Or unless you think human existence is meaningless and nothing anyone does matters. Which position may or may not have something to recommend it, but I don’t think you’ll see it showing up in the pages of APSR or AJPS.* Not v. often, at any rate.

*APSR = Am Pol Sci Review
*AJPS = Am Journal of Pol Sci


clew 11.10.12 at 5:16 pm

I was wondering what the political norms were, and Wikipedia says this about Carter’s actions:

Carter was the first president to address the topic of gay rights.[7] He opposed the Briggs Initiative, a California ballot measure that would have banned gays and supporters of gay rights from being public school teachers. His administration was the first to meet with a group of gay rights activists…

So there was room to be less anti-gay even before Reagan’s presidency. (Though Carter may well have paid for that electorally.)


Cranky Observer 11.10.12 at 5:30 pm

= = = And this at a time when he was courting the theocratic right in preparation for his 1980 campaign. His opposition, as “even the very conservative former governor,” was instrumental in defeating the initiative.

And of course it was always an open secret that Ron & Nancy had lots of close gay friends from their years in Hollywood.

Now, how does one square that with the fact that the man couldn’t be brought to utter the word “AIDS” in public, even while said gay friends had been dropping = ==

And who then appointed Everett Koop as Surgeon General, who in turn initiated and carried out the first nationwide campaign of education about AIDS including mailing information about the disease and its vectors to every US household. [1]


[1] Yes, I am aware of the criticisms of the content of that mailing, but overall it was accurate and its universal distribution also infuriated the evangelicals.


Sebastian H 11.10.12 at 5:34 pm

Modern liberals are almost sickeningly smug on gay issues, and it reveals a huge lack of historical knowledge, even with recent history. Do you know who signed the anti gay defense of marriage act? Democratic president Bill Clinton. Do you know the vote in the House when Repulicans controlled it by only 12 members? 342-67. Do you know the senate vote total when the Democrats controlled it by one member? 85-14. Do you know the name of the senator most instrumental in keeping gays out of the military in the 1990s? Democrat Sam Nunn. Do you know who the most prominent voice against DADT was at the time? Barry Goldwater. Yes THAT Barry Goldwater.

The truth is that for the most part republicans were enemies of gay rights, but democrats weren’t friends of it. At very best we were tolerated with extreme embarrassment by the majority of Democrats during the 60s 70s 80s and most of the 90s. And in many cases it was much worse than that. The crackdowns on gay bars continued in California well into the 90s. Yes THAT California.


Katherine 11.10.12 at 5:38 pm

how facile it is to feel superior to people encountering AIDS for the first time in 1982.

Well, it may be facile to feel superior to people encountering AIDS for the first time in 1982, but I have no problem feeling superior to people laughing at a “gay plague” and the deaths of hundreds of people from a new communicable disease.


Dr. Hilarius 11.10.12 at 6:00 pm

Bravo to Katherine. I can’t recall anyone making humorous remarks about Ebola, TB, or any other communicable disease. Also, it was clear from the beginning that AIDS was not easily transmitted. Well after the virus and it’s means of transmission had been identified hysteria continued, often abetted by sensationalist news coverage. After a point, it’s not ignorance, it’s hatred.


Eric 11.10.12 at 6:13 pm

I’m puzzled as to who it is serving up genteel pictures of Reagan-era conservatism.

This is a well-known part of the Reagan record. So is the Reagan record in Central America. So is Iran-Contra.

Anyone can watch or read Reagan’s career-making speech from 1964:

We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well that was probably true. They were all on a diet.

There is after all something that George H. W. Bush was supposed to be kinder and gentler than. Is this because Bruce Bartlett is sometimes reasonable about subjects other than US political history?


rf 11.10.12 at 6:35 pm

“I think I know what you’re trying to get…..”

Yeah I take your point, meaningless was over the top. What I would have asked (if it hadnt been 4am where I was and completely of topic) was when do Presidential elections make a difference and in what areas etc Rather than making a blanket statement such as they’re ‘meaningless’….


Dana in NYC 11.10.12 at 6:47 pm

I can’t recommend enough the star-studded long form movie “The Band Played On” to get insight into this period of time. Reagan, well I hope there is a Dantean hell where he is eternally rotting from one opportunistic infection after the other with Speakes eternally laughing at him. Of course, in Reagan’s weak defense, he personally was probably already suffering brain rot from the Alzheimers that killed him. For Reagan’s wife and other handlers there is no excuse.


Carl Weetabix 11.10.12 at 7:07 pm

Well, yesterday one of my close left leaning friends rolled his eyes at me as I noted despite Obama plusses over Romney that among other acts he was still sending suspects to be tortured by proxy via extraordinary rendition.

Apparently savagery is a perennial thing…


joel hanes 11.10.12 at 8:43 pm

I think this Kirk cartoon is still the definitive capsule description of Reagan on the national stage.

His sunny cruelty was even more evident during his terms as Governor of California, and I have yet to find a good short description of that time. Pointers would be appreciated.


leederick 11.10.12 at 9:16 pm

“Well, it may be facile to feel superior to people encountering AIDS for the first time in 1982, but I have no problem feeling superior to people laughing at a “gay plague” and the deaths of hundreds of people from a new communicable disease.”

I am not so sure. 200 cumulative deaths is not a lot. There are plenty of infections which have killed more that in the last 5 years that most of us won’t have heard of. “Gay plague” is a term that isn’t funny after three decades and more than a millions people in the US have been infected with HIV. In the early 80s, at a time when mainstream thought was that the war against infectious disease was won, I can see how people would have thought of it as fundamentally ridiculous.

If it hadn’t had happened, and I was posting on here about the idea of a new disease selectively striking down homosexuals, you would think I was a nutcase. It’s like skepticism about vaccination or heavier than air flight, we all believe in them because we’ve seen it, but you can appreciate how strange the ideas would be to people who’d never encountered them.


Uncle Kvetch 11.10.12 at 9:57 pm

And who then appointed Everett Koop as Surgeon General

Cranky, correct me if I’m wrong, but my recollection from the time is that there was a lot of genuine surprise, and more than a little discomfort, with Koop* within the administration when he went off script and started bringing factual knowledge and common sense to the discussion. I’ve always thought of him as the equivalent of David Souter in that sense.

*Yes, a true hero, and I don’t say that only because he operated on me when I was an infant, when he was a surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. But it’s one of my few genuine brushes with greatness so I rarely miss the opportunity to bring it up…


plarry 11.10.12 at 10:18 pm

We’re not talking abut you, we’re talking about the CDC. In 1982, the CDC knew there was a new disease that was highly lethal, infecting previously healthy adults, was probably sexually transmitted, and had reached epidemic proportions. Simple googling on the history of AIDS can reveal all of this.


Omega Centauri 11.10.12 at 11:20 pm

But Aids was a tricky disease to pin down. Sure it was known some infectious agent must be responsible, but it took quite a long time to isolate the virus. A long gestation period, and the indirectness of the symptoms (a seriously weakened immune system), made tracking it down no piece of cake. At the time of the conversation in question, I’m not sure what fraction of the population had any real knowledge about it. Taken literally it seems Larry was uninformed -or possibly faking it.


Sebastian H 11.10.12 at 11:31 pm

Souter couldn’t be fired. Koop easily could have been removed if he was really displeasing Reagan.


leederick 11.10.12 at 11:44 pm

Quite. We see it edited for clarity, in context, with all caps AIDS – preeminent infectious threat of out lifetimes. They would have heard:

“Larry, does the President have any response to the announcement the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta that aids is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?”

Which is just a nonsense sentence. And then “gay plague” – which may have sounded on a par to them with “gay hurricane” or “Paedogeddon”. It’s interesting the journalist interprets the laughter as disbelief at the name – and tries to assure them it really is actually called that.


rf 11.11.12 at 12:04 am

I doubt it was the concept of a new plague he found amusing. Here’s how the conversation continued (from Robins site)

Speakes: I don’t have it. Do you? (laughter)
Kinsolving: No, I don’t.
Speakes: You didn’t answer my question.
Kinsolving: Well, I just wondered, does the president—
Speakes: How do you know? (laughter)
Kinsolving: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
Speakes: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
Kinsolving: Does the president, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
Speakes: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any—
Kinsolving: Nobody knows?
Speakes: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.
Kinsolving: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping—
Speakes: I checked thoroughly with [Reagan’s personal physician] Dr. Ruge this morning, and he’s had no—(laughter)—no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.

So maybe. Seems unlikely though


bianca steele 11.11.12 at 12:42 am

In the mid-1980s, IIRC, there was beginning to be a focus on safe sex, dental dams, and so on, but almost as much w/r/t herpes as AIDS, still (certainly, in high school before 1984, it was all herpes). Would a man rather have a threesome with two straight women, who were less likely than lesbians to have had sex with gay or bisexual men? Would it be less safe to hook up with an unknown woman at a New York bar than one in Boston or Mobile? Less emphasis that I remember on the epidemic. (And it was a long time before the alumni magazine mentioned a death from AIDS.)


Watson Ladd 11.11.12 at 12:58 am

Omega, John Snow didn’t need that to rip the handle off a water pump. The SF health department didn’t need a pretty little electron microscope picture to know that the bathhouses had to close.


bianca steele 11.11.12 at 1:04 am

Or rather, since I didn’t read every obituary, it seemed that statistically speaking the number of deaths of alumni under 40 or so should have been higher than the two a decade you’d have expected if the magazine were printing a constant percentage of them for each year. In fact, now that I think of it, there was one prominent obituary of someone very young who was connected with the quilt somehow, but then very few.


Barry Freed 11.11.12 at 1:39 am

Also, it was clear from the beginning that AIDS was not easily transmitted

That’s not how I remember it at all.


bianca steele 11.11.12 at 2:02 am

Mr. “I want a threesome with two straight girls” was a theater guy, so his awareness may have been statistically unlikely, actually.


heckblazer 11.11.12 at 2:12 am

Uncle Kvetch @ 48:

Yes, the administration gave Koop a hard time when it came to AIDS. From Dr. Koop’s profile at the National Medical Library:

“[F]or the first four years in office, the nation’s top health officer was prevented from addressing the nation’s most urgent health crisis, for reasons he insisted were never fully clear to him but that were no doubt political. During the early years of the epidemic, AIDS predominantly affected people–homosexuals and intravenous drug users–who, in the view of President Reagan and his domestic policy advisers, brought the disease upon themselves by engaging in immoral conduct, and who were in greater need of moral reform than of new health information or policies. For two years, Koop was excluded from the Executive Task Force on AIDS established in 1983 by his immediate superior, Assistant Secretary of Health Edward Brandt. Journalists received instructions from Brandt’s office in advance of press conferences that the Surgeon General would not answer questions about AIDS, and that he was not to be asked about it. ”

“Finally, in February 1986, nearly five years after the outbreak of the epidemic, President Reagan instructed his Surgeon General to prepare a report on AIDS. Koop went to work with dispatch. During the next several months he met with numerous groups and experts involved in the fight against AIDS . . . Throughout he remained careful to treat AIDS not as a moral but as a public health issue, and to preserve his independence from any of the groups he consulted–as well as from the White House. Koop drafted the report himself at a stand-up desk in the basement of his home on the NIH campus, with only a handful of trusted staff members as advisers, including Fauci. Concerned that an in-depth review by Reagan’s domestic policy advisers would lead to the removal of crucial public health information from the report, such as on condom use, Koop submitted numbered copies of the final draft to the Domestic Policy Council, which he collected at the end of the meeting with the explanation that he sought to prevent leaks of the report to the media. The stratagem was successful: after little debate and without further revision Koop released the report at a press conference on October 22, 1986. Twenty million copies were eventually distributed to the public by members of Congress, public health organizations, and Parent-Teacher Associations.”


"Mr. I wanna threesome with two straight girls" 11.11.12 at 2:26 am

I just wan everyone to know that I’ve moved on and settled down.

& everything gay threatens the identity of masculine realms (e.g. politics), so the cruelty is way to reflexive and weak to merit “savagery”. I mean, certainly in comparison to Reagan’s Central American violence.


mclaren 11.11.12 at 5:36 am

As one of the great haters of American politics, Ronald Reagan is comparable only to Roy Cohn or Senator Joe McCarthy.

Let’s take a few examples not related to AIDS:

[1] Four months before the Kent State massacre, Ronald Reagan said about Vietnam anti-war protesters: “If it takes a bloodbath [to end the antiwar protests], let’s get it over with.”

When Kent State happened, Reagan claimed he had only been “joking.”

[2] In 1964, Ronald Reagan gave speeches against the upcoming bill to establish medicare:

“My name is Ronald Reagan. I have been asked to talk on the several subjects that have to do with the problems of the day. . . .

“One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine. It’s very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project. . . . Now, the American people, if you put it to them about socialized medicine and gave them a chance to choose, would unhesitatingly vote against it…..we are against forcing all citizens, regardless of need, into a compulsory government program….the consequences for our children would be dire: we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”

[3] “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah.” — Ronald Reagan

[4] In October 1983 Ronald Reagan told the Executive Director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Thomas Dine, in a widely-published interview, “I turn back to your prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if we are the generation that is going to see that come about. I don’t know if you have noted any of those prophecies lately, but, believe me, they describe the times we are going through.”

On December 6, 1983, Ronald Reagan told two reporters from People Magazine, in a White House interview, “There were times in the past when we thought the end of the world was coming, but never anything like this.”

Such examples could be multiplied endlessly. Ronald Reagan was the cruel sociopath with the kindly smile, the hatemonger who succeeded in convincing the American people that he was a genial charming nice guy.


Dairy Queen 11.11.12 at 5:38 am

My recollection as a schoolkid in California (greater SF Bay Area) with a dear, dear arts teacher who horribly and quickly died of Aids very early on is that Reagan was a shit and a bastard and shamelessly encouraged, not just tolerated but encouraged, the worst kind of religious and moralistic bigotry and even greater homophobia.

But then I absolutely loathed Reagan from the get go, and could never and still can’t to this day understand how anyone could find his demeanor and self presentation in any way pleasing or convincing. As I grew up in a community with a large number of fervent evangelicals, it seemed likely to me that Reagan himself was personally nothing like the people in my community who idolized him, so either he was astoundingly cynical or even more self-deluded than seemed conceivable.

As the horror of Aids ripped through the arts world I had only just begun to fully participate in, I cannot begin to tell you how much I grew to despise and despair of that man and the people he empowered.


maidhc 11.11.12 at 6:05 am

AIDS went a long way toward changing the way people looked at things. At the time of this exchange, people like Bob Hope could get laughs simply by making some coded reference to homosexuality. That’s kind of what’s going on here, in a cruder way. A short time later, people that everyone thought of as virile he-man actors started dying of AIDS, and it truly was a shock. A lot of people’s attitudes changed very quickly when the magnitude of the epidemic became clear.

Not everybody’s, of course. I remember there being a lot of criticism of Nancy Reagan because a lot of the people she interacted with, such as hairdressers, clothing designers and so on, were known to be gay, and although she claimed to be great friends with them, she wouldn’t say anything publicly about AIDS.

What we’re looking at is a snapshot of just before the change took place. But for anyone who didn’t live through it, we might as well be looking at the time of John C. Calhoun.

I don’t know about holding Reagan personally responsible for this exchange, but there’s plenty more things he did and said that seem to have vanished from accounts of his sainted reign. Laying a wreath on the Waffen-SS graves, for example.


Katherine 11.11.12 at 10:55 am

There are plenty of infections which have killed more that in the last 5 years that most of us won’t have heard of.

Indeed. But again, “not hearing” of something is a bit fucking different from laughing about it. And I daresay if you had known one of the 200 people (yes, actual people) who had been known to have died by then, you might take a different tack.

Seriously, stop defending the indefensible.


christian_h 11.11.12 at 12:18 pm

Does anyone remember journalists laughing and spokespeople joking about the various SARS etc that killed way fewer than 200 people, or about bioterrorism which has killed a handful? Yeah me neither. These guys (I am assuming it was mostly men) felt free to joke about AIDS because they felt safe from it, because it seemed to afflict only marginalized populations. So as Katherine said, let’s stop defending the indefensible.


sb 11.11.12 at 3:37 pm

Genteel? Anyone who knows anything about the savage wars in Central America knows the Reagan administration was anything but genteel.

I’ve never even been aware of this image of Reagan. Right wingers worship Reagan but anyone with a memory of the time or who reads history who is not on the far right remembers that the administration was not only savage but mendacious.


Alex 11.11.12 at 6:14 pm

I second the bewilderment at anyone thinking of Reagan as “genteel”. I always thought the case for him and his government was that he represented all-out, florid, grandiose American excess.


Barry 11.11.12 at 6:50 pm

11.10.12 at 9:16 pm

“Well, it may be facile to feel superior to people encountering AIDS for the first time in 1982, but I have no problem feeling superior to people laughing at a “gay plague” and the deaths of hundreds of people from a new communicable disease.”

leederick :”I am not so sure. 200 cumulative deaths is not a lot. There are plenty of infections which have killed more that in the last 5 years that most of us won’t have heard of. “Gay plague” is a term that isn’t funny after three decades and more than a millions people in the US have been infected with HIV. In the early 80s, at a time when mainstream thought was that the war against infectious disease was won, I can see how people would have thought of it as fundamentally ridiculous.”

Legionnaire’s disease – 1976, 34 deaths (


CJColucci 11.11.12 at 9:54 pm

In October 1982, when I was a sophomore in high school,

I’m having a bad day as it is; I didn’t need to hear this.


Michael Kempster 11.11.12 at 11:35 pm

Reagan’s first speech after he got the Republican nomination in 1980 was in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where, nototiously, Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, young civil rights workers, were taken by white racists from their jail cells and shot dead. In the speech, he extolled ‘states’ rights’, questioning federal imposition on them. ‘States’ Rights’ was throughout the South a not very secret code word for racism. It was the cry of those who loathed federal interference with Jim Crow. Everybody who wasn’t wilfully blind knew what Reagan was talking about.


hannah 11.12.12 at 1:22 am

[aeiou] “The savage wars in central America”
And Lebanon. Remember?
As ivve tried to make clear, I’m not convinced any of you were as enraged at the time as you would want to claim now.
Faggots and Palestinians, dykes and niggers; liberals live by 20/20 hindsight.
The Stonewall Inn really wasnt a hotbed of earnest college-fed liberalism.


Gene O'Grady 11.12.12 at 3:37 am

Couple of comments. Perhaps being from San Francisco made me more aware, but it was pretty obvious by 1981-2 that something big was happening, that just what it was was unclear, and the means of transmission were not well defined. In fact, I remember hearing from one anti-gay bigot who should have known better that a big reason to be very afraid was that the means of transmission could change. All of which tends to make the fact that were only 200 or so deaths at that period pretty irrelevant.

On the attitude of the government and democrats to gays, I remember riding down El Camino in the car with my dad (who prosecuted subversives as a very junior attorney in the Truman administration — upshot, Joe McCarthy was a lying drunken bastard, 98% of dangerous subversives were out for a buck) and something came on the radio about gay liberation — this would have been about 1975. Rather to my shock, his response was “I’m really glad to hear this. I remember back in the US Attorney’s office we used to have cases where there was nothing wrong with a guy except something he couldn’t help and he got into trouble because they could blackmail him.”

I note also that Harry Truman’s memoirs were ghost written by the openly gay Merle Miller.


Corey Robin 11.12.12 at 5:12 am

Merle Miller also wrote a very powerful book about McCarthyism! If you’re interested in the persecution of gays and lesbians during the Cold War, David Johnson’s *The Lavender Scare* is a good place to start. I reviewed it here:


David 11.12.12 at 6:28 am

@74 hannah: speak for yourself.


And another thing 11.12.12 at 9:34 pm

From Journal of Public Health Policy

“…he relayed to me what the highest levels of government said about my plan to limit further spread of HIV. ‘Don, they rejected the plan. They said, “Look pretty and do as little as you can.”…
The Director of CDC during those days, Dr James Mason, was also not willing to fight his bosses to protect the public from AIDS. Mason was a conservative appointee from Utah. Years later, as he looked back at the early AIDS years describing his inability to confront the conservative leadership, he stated ‘there are certain areas which, when the goals of science collide with moral and ethical judgment, science has to take a time out’.2 ”


Uncle Kvetch 11.12.12 at 10:57 pm

Well, the thread’s pretty much dead but I’d like to thank And another thing for that link. I think it’s worth adding a few more choice excerpts, as they seem to sum things up pretty well:

“Ignoring AIDS was not a passive endeavor. It was an active policy of the Reagan Administration.


The Surgeon General at that time, Dr C. Everett Koop should have been the one to lead the charge so that CDC could deliver an appropriate prevention program. However, he was forbidden to say anything about the disease for five and half years of Reagan’s term. Koop finally broke ranks with the Administration and issued a Surgeon General’s report in October 1986. For that, Koop was attacked within the Administration by a list of notables: Education Secretary William Bennett, his aid, Gary Bauer (who later became White House domestic policy adviser), and Patrick Buchanan, White House director of communications.

Buchanan had shown his colors well before joining the staff when he wrote about AIDS ‘The poor homosexuals. They have declared war on nature and now nature is exacting an awful retribution’.


As much of the world turns to the CDC for leadership in cases of new epidemics, the resulting vacuum had much wider ramifications. But with AIDS, it was not just an absence of leadership. It was often active obstruction of logical responses. These people caused immense preventable suffering and death – and it is likely that no one in the Reagan Administration will ever be held accountable.”


Glen Tomkins 11.13.12 at 5:26 am


It is true that in popular culture, there was a lot of concern for much longer than there needed to be that AIDS could be transmitted through casual contact. But the observed pattern of transmission, from the very start, and long before we had isolated the causative HIV, was clearly, definitively, and categorically limited to transmission by sexual contact and IV blood products.

It is also true, sadly, that when I refer to the popular culture harboring unnecessary concerns for casual transmission, that includes a whole lot of doctors and nurses who failed a rather elementary standard of professional conduct and refused to treat AIDS patients out of a fear of contagion that was clearly, had they not been dimwit bigots, not even justified, much less something that would have relieved them of their duty to the sick even if justified.

For a while there, there was a real possibility that we were going to have to labor under a completely unnecessary quarantine regime for AIDS. Some countries did indeed have quarantines, a completely unjustified and counter-productive measure except for diseases that can be transmitted by casual contact. We dodged that bullet in the US, but I blame both govt inattention and the foolish talk and personal example of some medical “professionals” for the near miss.


Sev 11.13.12 at 5:09 pm

#14 Also: Angola/Savimbi, Mozambique/Renamo. The stupid pundits with their likable Reagan meme should have their noses ground into the savagery he enabled.


LL 11.13.12 at 7:04 pm

Oh yeah fighting MPLA and FRELIMO was a bad thing…
Not really surprised this comming from crooked timber audience.

And even there is the gall to blast AIDS response, one of diaseses of the famous and the first political disease. For that got the best response.
Because for that many other diseases – not political – got pushed out of major funding.


ezra abrams 11.14.12 at 3:43 am

why the disconnect between the policys of reagan and his likability ?
when somone asked Peggy Noonan about all the bloopers reagan made in debates, she said (emphasis added)
so what, millions *saw* him during the debate, thousands *read* the correction the next day in the [NY] Times.

the point is, I think, that most people base their feelings and actions on what they *see* on TV; on TV, reagan is very attractive and well spoken, and, from woman I’ve talked to quite handsome.
This is what the brain processes, this handsome guy on TV.
The ability to think past our emotions – how many of us have given a quite attractive member of the opposite or appropriate sex a pass at one time or another because that person was attractive – is difficult; liberals should not pride themselves on this, but merely reflect that if it is that hard for many, are we really better.

f0r instance, today, as i write, you can almost feel the liberal blogosphere turning an idea into reality: on election day, exit polls showed that a majority of Americans are in favor of higher taxes on the rich.
but this cannot possibly be true, afaik, because exit polls were only done in 30 battleground states…


mclaren 11.14.12 at 6:59 am

Corey’s point about the brutal persecution of gays & lesbians during the Cold War McCarthy red-baiting witch hunts is a good one, and we need to remember that Ronald Reagan began his political career as the head of the Hollywood blacklist at the behest of the House Unamerican Activities Committees. Reagan first rose to political prominence by persecuting actors and actresses and screenwriters whose politics or lifestyles he didn’t like, by presiding over a blacklist that made thousands of people unemployable in Hollywood because they read the wrong books or happened to be gay or because they belonged to the ACLU — which was, unbelievably, at that time considered a “Communist front organization.”

Once again, hardly a genial charming person. Ronald Reagan took his political cues from Roy Cohn, a gay man who used his power on the House Unamerican Activities Committee to persecute gays and a Jew who gloried in being a public anti-Semite.


J. Otto Pohl 11.14.12 at 9:35 am

80 and 81

While the US government did support UNITA against the MPLA it did not support RENAMO against FRELIMO. Instead largely following the example of Thatcher who advocated engagement with Maputo after they helped broker the Lancaster House Accords in Zimbabwe the Reagan White House actually provided various forms of aid including “non-lethal” military assistance to the FRELIMO regime. A lot of right wingers in the US were strongly opposed to the State Dept. policy regarding Mozambique. But, the State Dept. not these outlying groups controlled policy and the policy was to support FRELIMO not RENAMO.


Guano 11.15.12 at 12:01 pm

Activity by UNITA in Angola and RENAMO in Mozambique took off simultaneously in 1981 just after Reagan took office. Support from the USA was important to both organisations that had been in abeyance for three or four years (as was the green light to South Africa from the USA to resume support). The change in USA policy to Mozambique occurred in about 1984 because of the attitude of the UK government, especially the attitude of Ambassador Vines who lobbied his own government hard and who advised the Mozambican government to not give up in efforts to build bridges with the UK and the USA. Without the hard work of Ambassador Vines, the USA would probably have kept on supporting RENAMO.

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