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The Pessivist

Larry Kramer
Larry Kramer reads from his book "The Tragedy of Today's Gays" at Lambda Rising. "I'm tired of saying the same things," he says. "I've said enough." (Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post)

The Reagan White House did nothing about AIDS in its early years, Kramer says, and the White House of the second President Bush -- even with its five-year, $15 billion global AIDS program -- does an "inadequate" and "pathetic" job of dealing with it now. The White House of the first President Bush didn't do nearly enough, he adds, and the same can be said of the Clinton White House. In his speeches, in his writings, in his interviews, Kramer spews this out: There were 41 cases of "the gay plague" when he first started yelling about "whatever it was" in 1981, and there are now more than 40 million people, gay and straight, who are infected with HIV -- a figure he attributes to a 2002 U.N. report, which also said that some 70 million will die from AIDS in the next 20 years.

Those with money and health insurance -- like Kramer, who tested HIV-positive in 1987 -- can afford the expensive "cocktail" of drugs to treat it. But what about the rest of the world?

"What if, one of these days, the drugs all of a sudden stop working?" Kramer, ever the pessimist, asks.

"There's a grimness in Larry's politics -- it's not a sort of politics of feel-good exhortation," says Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "Angels in America," subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." "In a way, like a lot of Jewish men of Larry's generation, the Holocaust is a defining historical moment, and what happened in the early 1980s with AIDS felt, and was in fact, holocaustal to Larry."

"Larry wanted to do things now, quickly, strongly. He's always been that way," says Tim Westmoreland, who has known Kramer since the early 1980s. A law professor at Georgetown University, Westmoreland is a longtime adviser to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

In April 1982, Waxman, then chairman on the House's Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, organized the first congressional hearing on AIDS. That year Kramer -- in response to what he perceived as the government that didn't want to hear about this mysterious disease and the gay community that was reluctant to face it -- co-founded Gay Men's Health Crisis, the first and one of the largest AIDS service organizations in the United States. But GMHC's tactics weren't confrontational enough, not fiery enough, not explosive enough. So in 1987, he founded the protest group ACT-UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.

ACT-UP lived up to its name -- at its height, it boasted more than 130 national chapters and Kramer, as its leader, became the most iconic figure of the AIDS movement. He was intimidating. He was outrageous. He was relentless, helping to stop trading on the New York Stock Exchange floor, staging mass "die-ins" in front of the White House, interrupting Dan Rather's "CBS Evening News" broadcast. It's hard to overestimate the impact of these protests, and Kramer, a very public face of an increasingly public disease, was in everyone's face. Some people, both gay and straight, thought he was going too far. The whole "right message/wrong messenger" concept that he heard one too many times.

"He's like the drill sergeant of the AIDS movement. Everything's too slow for him -- and that's good. God knows we need a prophet in the wilderness who's always saying what people don't want to hear," says Westmoreland. "But, at the time, if you were working within the system" -- at the National Institutes of Health, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or on Capitol Hill -- "you wanted to tell him, 'Be reasonable, it will take a while,' but he'd say, 'No, do it now.' "

Anthony Fauci, director of NIH's program on infectious diseases, couldn't escape Kramer's scorn in the early years of the epidemic. Fauci was a "criminal," Kramer wrote in a scathing open letter to Fauci published in the San Francisco Examiner. Fauci was "incompetent." In his 1992 off-Broadway play, "The Destiny of Me," mostly set in Washington, Kramer changed the name Fauci to Della Vida, "but there's no doubt that was me," says Fauci.

"What Larry did, by his provocative approach, is change the medical landscape in this country for the better. How patients talked to their doctors. How constituencies interacted with researchers at the NIH and regulators at the FDA," says Fauci, who says he considers Kramer a "close friend."

Their relationship has indeed evolved, and Fauci credits it to a long walk he and Kramer took on a spring night at an AIDS conference in Montreal years later: "I have a phenomenal amount of respect for Larry, a tremendous amount of admiration. He's been a lightning rod, no question about it."

What Could Have Been

For more than 20 years, Kramer has been working on "The American People," a history of the United States as he sees it, "a great deal of it" set in Washington. It's now some 3,000 manuscript pages, and he'll finish it when he finishes it.

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