As parties go, this one was brave and heartbreaking and awful all at the same time. There is nothing festive about AIDS, especially when it strikes children. It's difficult to think about, much less talk about.
But that was the point last night at the National Building Museum, where more than 850 people gathered for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation's "A Night to Unite." The evening raised $2 million for research, but its real purpose was to make sure people keep talking about kids and AIDS.
"Complacency in this hour of the disease may be more deadly than the disease itself," said Paul Glaser, chairman of the foundation board.
The dinner commemorated the 10th anniversary of the foundation, which held its first fund-raiser here a decade ago with a loud and poignant message to Congress: Do something about pediatric AIDS. Since that night, Glaser lost his wife and daughter to AIDS and is still fighting to save his teenage son. His message last night was gentler but no less poignant: Don't stop.
The guest list included celebrities, researchers and politicians, including Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), emcees Mary Matalin and James Carville, and actors Bess Armstrong, John Dye, Carol Kane, Mary Kay Place, Concetta Tomei and Lynn Whitfield. "How do you say no to something like this?" asked Carville. Many, like Carville, knew Elizabeth Glaser and became instant and permanent admirers.
Glaser contracted the virus in 1981 from a blood transfusion during the birth of her daughter, Ariel. Four years later, the child became seriously ill and the family was checked for HIV. Elizabeth tested positive and was devastated to discover she had passed the virus to both her daughter and infant son, Jake, during breast feeding. Her husband, "Starsky and Hutch" actor Paul Michael Glaser, was the only one in the family not infected.
"You never know what tragedy will do to somebody," Boxer said. "She could have shut out the world and surrounded herself with love because a lot of people loved her. She chose instead to fight to save her children--and then all children. It wasn't about her. It never was."
Glaser became a vocal AIDS activist and a sharp critic of what she saw as the Reagan administration's lack of interest in battling the disease. In 1988, 7-year-old Ariel died and Glaser started the foundation, quickly raising millions for pediatric care and research. Glaser died in 1994 at the age of 47.
"I loved her," said Hatch. "She was a wonderful person." He met Glaser in the late '80s when she first arrived in Washington to lobby the Food and Drug Administration. "She was a very liberal Democrat and she didn't trust Republicans at all," he said. "She was amazed to discover Republicans have hearts, too."
Hatch and former senator Howard Metzenbaum were deeply involved in the first fund-raiser, whiched raised $1 million. In the past 10 years, the foundation has raised $75 million for pediatric AIDS research and treatment.
At first, some within the AIDS community complained that funding was going disproportionately to children because they were sympathetic victims, as opposed to people who acquired HIV due to unsafe behavior. The problem today is the general perception that, due to advances in treatment, AIDS is no longer a serious threat.
"The good news is that people are living longer," said Dye, who stars on "Touched by an Angel." "But living longer means the need for more services and more funding."
"The silver bullet isn't there," said Bess Armstrong. "It's scary when people say, 'They've cured AIDS.' They haven't."
The Glaser foundation's focus now is on continuing research, especially on the effectiveness of drug treatments for growing children and their cost. While infant rates of infection are declining, the virus is spreading among adolescent girls.
"The main thing is that we can't afford to be complacent about this," said Glaser. "I think there's a tremendous belief that this is a manageable disease."
Glaser has the most personal of reasons to keep on fighting. His son, Jake, is HIV-positive but otherwise functioning like your average teenage boy. "He's still at risk, but he's doing okay," said his father. "He's a normal 14-year-old."
And Glaser himself is doing okay: He remarried three years ago and has a 20-month-old daughter, Zoe. But he has remained actively involved with the foundation and last night delivered a striking, very personal speech to the audience.
"This is a very intense evening for me," Glaser began. He was here to save his son and to honor both the memories of Elizabeth and Ariel and his own journey of the past decade.
The statistics were chilling--1,600 children in the world are infected by HIV every day; 500,000 died last year. The disease is spreading, especially in Third World countries, and the virus outpaces the drugs designed to fight it.
"None of us want to hear every day from Chicken Little that the sky is falling," Glaser said.
It is human nature to fear death and shy away from everything and anything that reminds us of our mortality. But he challenged each person in the room to embrace that fear--and gain the ability to care for others because of it.
"Our problems are not going to go away--nor should they," said Glaser. "They are our teachers. They show us our heart, our strength, our purpose."
There was a palpable pause when he finished, as if the speech had drained the audience. Even the applause was muted, as if anything too loud would be somehow profane.
And so the blessing, on this night, by Senate Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie was more than apt: "Thank you for showing once again that the heart of the matter is the heart."
CAPTION: Paul Glaser and Kim Brooks at last night's fund-raiser.