Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, is an important figure on the political right. He recently appeared on television to express a conservative position on AIDS and, in passing, his views on homosexuality. He favors the widest possible testing of almost everyone under any circumstances, including "prospective apartment renters." Phillips apparently thinks you can get AIDS from a lease.
As a minor (one apartment) landlord myself, I am appalled. I don't know how to repair a toilet, much less administer an AIDS test. In my experience, just checking bank references is chore enough. Asking every prospective tenant to submit to an AIDS test (monthly? annually?) is enough to dampen my entrepreneurial spirit. I will not even mention the ever-increasing cost of heating fuel.
I start with Phillips for a reason. His suggestion is typical of the demagoguery coming from some American conservatives on the issue of AIDS and homosexuality. Others have made similar suggestions and, of course, Jerry Falwell, who precedes his attempts at character assassination with a "Sonnet From the Portuguese" ("How do I love thee? Let me count the ways?"), continues to employ ugly anti-gay language in his fund-raising appeals. Next to Jim Bakker, Falwell loves homosexuals the most.
In contrast, we have the language of President Reagan. In his recent speech calling for limited AIDS testing (of immigrants, federal prisoners, patients in VA hospitals, persons applying for marriage licenses and those attending sexual disease clinics), the president sounded a cautionary note: "This is a battle against disease, not against our fellow Americans." Would that the president's words were heeded by his chums on the right.
Instead, many of the president's political followers seem to be heeding the words of Richard Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell. A kind of latter-day Machiavelli, Mitchell lectured the press on how to assess his prince: "Watch not what we say, but what we do." If that test is applied to the Reagan administration, the president's good words become almost instantly hollow.
Reagan is no bigot when it comes to homosexuals. As California governor, when some homosexuals were discovered on his staff, Reagan handled what could have been a nasty scandal with sensitivity. But he has totally failed to deal with the ugly homophobia infecting much of the American conservative movement. Along with Vice President Bush, he has kissed the ring of such mud-slingers as Falwell and refused to slap down the likes of Phillips.
Now the nation is paying a price. AIDS, which is a disease after all, has become a political issue. Where the nation should be united, it is divided. The administration has little credibility with homosexuals. For good reasons -- its rhetoric, its associations and some appalling administrative decisions -- it is not trusted by the gay community. Even some scientists suspect the White House is more interested in battling homosexuals than the disease that's killing them.
Maybe limited mandatory testing is the way to go. Coming from another administration such a proposal -- hardly draconian, after all -- might be met with some minor protest, discussion and, ultimately, compromise. But in the gay community, the Reagan administration is known by the company it keeps and the decisions it has made. Until the Supreme Court ruled otherwise, the Reagan Justice Department said AIDS victims could be legally fired whether the fear of contagion was "reasonable or not." And, just recently, the White House refused to reserve a seat on the president's AIDS commission for a homosexual -- a move akin to denying Jews a place on the Holocaust commission. (About 70 percent of all AIDS victims are gay.)
In the Eisenhower era, the phrase "moral suasion" had a certain currency. It referred to a president's power to set a certain moral tone, to lead by force of character. Dwight Eisenhower was faulted for failing to do precisely that when it came to school desegregation, and history has assigned him some demerits as a result.
The judgment of history is not yet in on President Reagan. But surely it will have to take into account a president whose own words, when it comes to AIDS and homosexuals, were above reproach but who was silent about the reprehensible language of his supporters. When it comes to AIDS, the ultimate test may well be for moral principles, and it should be administered to politicians, not apartment renters. If it were, the Reagan administration would flunk.