"It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s," Clinton said. "And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan -- in particular Mrs. Reagan --we started a national conversation."
But that's not how LGBT and AIDS advocates remember it. Both Reagans have been criticized for being slow to acknowledge the AIDS crisis. President Reagan addressed it in a speech in 1987, six years after it had been recognized as a serious public health problem.
The comments caused an uproar online, including among prominent LGBT and AIDS activists. Hours later, in a statement, Clinton apologized for making the comments on MSNBC.
"While the Reagans were strong advocates for stem cell research and finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease, I misspoke about their record on HIV and AIDS," Clinton said in a statement. "For that, I'm sorry."
In the intervening hours between her comments and the apology, the campaign and LGBT advocates conferred over the need to urgently address the comments, Richard Socarides, an aide to former president Bill Clinton and adviser on gay rights and AIDS issues in the Clinton White House, acknowledged in an interview.
“I think that left unaddressed it would cause some kind of a stir," Socarides said. “She is well aware of the devastation that President Reagan’s neglect around AIDS caused. Her husband’s campaign in 1992 was very focused on it.
"She was speaking at the woman’s funeral, and I think her comments should be read in that context," he added.
The Reagans also lost a close friend to AIDS, actor Rock Hudson, who died two years before Reagan's speech. And documents obtained by BuzzFeed News last year revealed that Hudson appealed to Nancy Reagan for help obtaining treatment before his death. She declined to assist.
"Nancy and Ron Reagan were a functional team in the Presidency,” wrote AIDS activist Kenneth Bunch, a.k.a. Sister Vicious Power Hungry B----, according to the Guardian. “They are both responsible for the death of thousands from HIV in the LGBT community due to their inaction in the 1980s. So I understand the anger in the LGBT community toward Nancy. I feel that anger as well.”
Without responding directly to Clinton's comments, Chad Griffin, a longtime friend of the Clintons and president of the Human Rights Campaign, spoke out against a favorable view of Nancy Reagan's role in addressing the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
"While I respect her advocacy on issues like stem cell & Parkinson's research, Nancy Reagan was, sadly, no hero in the fight against HIV/AIDS," Griffin said in a tweet.
It is also unclear what actions of Nancy Reagan's that Clinton was referring to. In the interview, Clinton said that Reagan's advocacy for HIV/AIDS is "something that I really appreciate."
"With her very effective, low-key advocacy ... it penetrated the public consciousness, and people began to say: we have to do something about this, too," Clinton added.