How attitudes toward AIDS have changed, in the White House and beyond

December 4, 2013
A red ribbon hangs from the North Portico of the White House on Dec. 2, 2013 to mark World AIDS Day, Dec. 2, 2013 (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
A red ribbon hangs from the North Portico of the White House on Dec. 2, 2013, to mark World AIDS Day. (Chuck Kennedy/White House)

People sometimes romanticize what Washington was like a few decades ago, when Ronald Reagan was in office and had drinks with Tip O'Neill at night. But a transcript of an Oct. 15, 1982, White House briefing by Larry Speakes, Reagan's acting press secretary, serves as a sharp reminder of how the politics of yore had its flaws.

The transcript, courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, chronicles how Speakes relentlessly mocked a reporter for asking about AIDS as other reporters laughed. Here's the excerpt:

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?
MR. SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
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 anybody 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.

White House Press Briefing Oct. 15, 1982

While the exchange seems shocking now, it clearly was routine to the journalists sitting in the briefing room. Archives show the exchange merited no mention in news coverage at the time. The episode illustrates how radically the nation’s political and popular culture has changed since it took place.

Even Ronald Reagan’s stance on the issue changed in his second term: his surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, issued a report on AIDS in October 1986, and the following year the president made his first public speech on the issue and created the President’s Commission on the HIV Epidemic by executive order in 1987.

Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, signed the original Ryan White CARE Act, which was the most significant federal AIDS program at the time, in 1990, and signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which covers people living with HIV.

And while President Bill Clinton created both an Office of National AIDS Policy in 1993 and a Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS two years later, one of the boldest federal moves on the issue came under George W. Bush. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, launched in 2003 with $15 billion, was the largest single commitment by any nation to combat a single disease internationally.

Tony Fratto, who served as Bush’s deputy press secretary from September 2006 until January 2009, said he remembered how Bush reacted when his advisers informed him the initiative would make a major difference in the world of public health.

“You're telling me this is effective and saves lives.  Why are you only asking me for $5 billion?’” Fratto recalled Bush saying. As a result, the administration tripled its budget request.

Fratto recalled that there was not only resistance by some conservatives to the idea that the U.S. would spend that much to fight AIDS, but there were also people working for the president who thought he should have done more to promote gay rights.

“There was a lot of internal debate on these issues, not only because we had a lot of gay staff in the White House  and throughout the administration. Some of them were public, some were not,” he said, adding that compared to the early '80s, “There has been a revolution over tolerance over the past 30 years, but we have not reached the other side of that arc.”

Obama has gone further than his predecessors, signing legislation that has lifted the ban on the donation of HIV-negative organs to HIV-positive patients, and putting in place rules that have ended the ban on HIV-positive visitors and immigrants entering the United States.

But it’s worth noting that Obama entered office with the same position on gay marriage as Bush: backing the idea of civil unions, while deferring to the states on the question of same-sex marriage. He reversed course in 2012 to endorse gay marriage.

On Monday, Obama pledged to give as much as $5 billion to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria over the next three years, saying that an “AIDS-free generation” may be within reach.

“We're making progress,” Obama said at a White House event Monday marking World AIDS Day, which took place the day before. “But we're all here today because we know how much work remains to be done.”

 Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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Chris Cillizza · December 4, 2013