Nancy Reagan stared into the camera with her glistening hazel eyes. Her hair was a perfect feathery helmet, her lipstick a shade of coral, her ears pinned with gold.
“There’s no moral middle ground,” she said. “Indifference is not an option.”
It was Sept. 14, 1986. She was talking about drugs. She was not talking about AIDS.
Reagan’s vocal crusade against one scourge, and her relative silence on the other, adorn her legacy with complications, in this week after her death at 94. Another former first lady at Reagan’s funeral in Simi Valley, Calif., Friday, proved that these nerves are still raw.
“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s,” Hillary Clinton told an MSNBC interviewer. “And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan — in particular Mrs. Reagan — we started a national conversation, when before nobody would talk about it, nobody wanted to do anything about it.”
In fact, the Reagans spent most of the 1980s silent on the issue. Clinton apologized hours later, saying she “misspoke” — but she had already unleashed a torrent of criticism, inflaming an antipathy toward the Reagans that has long smouldered.
Nancy Reagan wasn’t president, but she was a symbol, a spokeswoman, with her own kind of power. And she was damned by some for her actions on one issue — a drug policy stance that many viewed as simplistic — and damned for her inaction on another.
For many, the two stances seem to commingle. In 1988, the gay writer and pioneering AIDS activist Larry Kramer wrote a play titled “Just Say No” — borrowing Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug catchphrase to skewer the Reagans and other influentials who were inattentive to the AIDS crisis.
“I put every bit of awfulness I could uncover into this,” Kramer told Liz Smith of Newsday in 1991. His tone typified the ruthless contempt for the Reagans that came from the gay community in particular.
Marc Lamont Hill’s first memory of Nancy Reagan was reruns of her 1983 appearance on “Diff’rent Strokes,” where she cautioned a classroom of grade schoolers against the drugs in their midst. The problem with “Just Say No,” Hill says, was the “just.” It presented a one-word answer, out of context, as the only reasonable option for people surrounded by drugs.
“I think Nancy Reagan was well-intentioned but ultimately became an unknowing pitchwoman for a vicious, draconian drug war,” says Hill, 37, a professor of African American studies at Morehouse College. “They didn’t appreciate the relationship between drug abuse and public health, mental illness, resources, jobs, et cetera, so part of what the Reagan administration did is individualize a collective problem.”
As Reagan was delivering her 1986 address, the United States was enduring twin health crises. Drug treatment centers were overrun with crack addicts; cocaine-related deaths had tripled over the previous five years. There were 25,000 reported cases of AIDS, with 3 million to 5 million expected in the ensuing five years.
And there was Nancy Reagan, staring intently at America, fretting for it as grandmother in chief, from the second-floor residence of the White House.
“When I first got [to the White House], they said I was a fluffhead, you know?” she would later say to Johnny Carson. “That all I was interested in was clothes and shopping, and you know, all that. Then I guess after Ronnie was shot there was a kind of quiet period there. Then all of a sudden I was running the world. I was nuclear decisions and all of that.”
First ladies have always been scrutinized for their influence, or desire for influence. Dolley Madison was the first “first lady,” having earned the title even before she braved the siege of her residence. Eleanor Roosevelt held her own news conferences. Camelot would not have materialized without Jackie, the keeper of the Kennedy mystique.
And Nancy — what of Nancy? She was steel. She was cashmere. She was cold. She was class. And after a couple years of bad press, she was in need of a cause.
“Just say no,” she told America’s youth, starting in ’83. Indifference was the enemy, she said, with all the warmth of a headmaster. Drugs were everyone’s problem to stop, she said. Critics at the time found the slogan simplistic and moralistic. The sentiment persists today.
“There’s a way you could equate ‘just say no’ with actually doing nothing,” says Jennifer Brier, an associate professor of history and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of “Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis.”
“Abstinence as a way of dealing with drugs was absolutely akin to the policy of the Reagan administration about AIDS: They’re both negative arguments — or calls for abstinence or not doing something — as opposed to acknowledging the reality” — which is that people will have sex or abuse substances, Brier says, and people should figure out how to make that behavior safer.
As Mrs. Reagan toured the country to speak and listen to the addicted and the vulnerable, AIDS was viewed as a problem for gay men alone, never mind that the two epidemics were linked by intravenous drug use.
The Reagans had beloved gay friends and colleagues. They were Hollywood people, after all. Decorator Ted Graber, who captained the White House’s interior face-lift, spent a night in the Reagans’ private quarters with his boyfriend, following the first lady’s 60th birthday party in the summer of ’81.
The Reagans are “tolerant about homosexual men,” The Washington Post’s Robert Kaiser wrote in March 1984, adding that “all the available evidence suggests that Ronald Reagan is a closet tolerant.”
This was the ’80s, though, and it was far safer to be intolerant of drugs than it was to be tolerant of gays.
Elizabeth Taylor wrote a letter to Nancy Reagan encouraging her to make an issue of AIDS; the first lady’s response was “frosty,” according to Vanity Fair. When Rock Hudson was dying of AIDS in France in 1985, a plea for medical help was rebuffed by the White House, according to correspondence unearthed last year by BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner.
“I spoke with Mrs. Reagan about the attached telegram” from Rock Hudson’s people, wrote Mark Weinberg, special assistant to the president, in a memo. “She did not feel this was something the White House should get into.”
Was she being cautious about giving preferential treatment to a pal? Or was she nervous about taking action on an issue that her husband had yet to formally address in public?
In 1986, President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which appropriated $96.5 million solely for the construction of more prisons.
Just say no, the White House said.
No was the only thing gay Americans and first-time drug offenders were hearing from Washington.
Nancy Reagan did not hold the power of the pen, but she did have the president’s ear. She reportedly pushed her husband to engage the AIDS crisis, eventually, but for a while it seemed as if the Reagans were occupying a moral middle ground they had forsworn on television.
In their twilight, Ronald Reagan became the patron saint of the modern Republican Party, and Nancy his devoted caretaker. She avoided the spotlight, but sometimes the spotlight found her. She supported marriage equality, her daughter Patti Davis told Sirius XM radio host Michelangelo Signorile.
The public was left to wonder: Had she always?
Regardless, her cause was now Alzheimer’s, which had stolen her husband. Her concern and urgency were as intense as if she were talking to the nation’s endangered youth from the White House. Meanwhile, the United States cleared $1 trillion spent on the war on drugs and 650,000 deaths related to AIDS.
“A lot of time is being wasted,’’ Nancy once told the New York Times, after criticizing George W. Bush’s opposition to stem-cell research. “A lot of people who could be helped are not being helped.”
An earlier version of this story misidentified Jennifer Brier’s academic title and the full name of her university.