The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A disturbing new glimpse at the Reagan administration’s indifference to AIDS

Two Thousand candles were lighted on World AIDS Day in Copenhagen on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015.(Jens Dresling/ AP via POLFOTO)

In honor of Tuesday’s World AIDS Day — an annual campaign to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, honor those who have died and elevate the hope of an AIDS-free future generation — a new documentary film offers a revealing look back at the early 1980s and the Reagan administration’s initial reaction to the emerging AIDS crisis.

Filmmaker Scott Calonico’s short documentary, When AIDS Was Funny, debuted Tuesday on the Vanity Fair Web site and features previously unpublished audio from press conferences where reporter Lester Kinsolving implored Reagan administration press secretary Larry Speakes to address the mounting cases of AIDS nationwide.

The film can be viewed here.

The first exchange in the film, recorded in 1982, when AIDS-related deaths in the United States numbered in the hundreds, sets a clear tone:

“Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta that A-I-D-S is now an epidemic in over 600 cases?” Kinsolving asks, spelling out the acronym.

Speakes appears dumbfounded. “A-I-D-S? I haven’t got anything on it.”

Kinsolving elaborates: “It’s known as ‘gay plague.’ ”

At this, the press pool dissolves into laughter.

Kinsolving’s tone remains grave. “No, it is,” he says. “It’s a pretty serious thing, one in every three people that get this have died, and I wonder if the President is aware of this?”

Speakes doesn’t answer the question, but offers up a joke instead: “I don’t have it,” he says, “do you?”

At subsequent press conferences in 1983 and 1984, Speakes — and the White House press corps — continue to respond to Kinsolving’s increasingly urgent questions about AIDS with a mix of laughter, homophobic jokes and general indifference.

It’s no secret that Ronald Reagan’s response to the HIV/AIDS crisis left a blot on his presidential record; by the time he finally addressed the epidemic in earnest — in 1987 — nearly 23,000 people had died of the disease. Though Reagan ultimately labeled AIDS “public health enemy No. 1,” he also suggested that its spread might be slowed by ethical behavior — i.e., abstinence. “After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?” he said, according to the New York Times.

But in 2015, when the CDC reports that more than 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV and the total number of AIDS-related deaths nationwide tops 658,000, the video offers a new and troubling glimpse at how a major public health crisis went unaddressed for so long.