The XX Factor

Hillary Clinton Praises Reagans for Starting “a National Conversation” About AIDS. That’s Insane.

First lady Hillary Clinton with former first ladies Barbara Bush, Betty Ford, and Nancy Reagan in 1997 in College Station, Texas. 

John Mottern/AFP/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton is the queen of unforced errors. In a Democratic debate last month, she proudly cited the praise of ghoulish war criminal Henry Kissinger, underlining every doubt that progressives harbor about her foreign policy. Today, she once again showed how politically tone-deaf she can be. On MSNBC, she offered the following baffling encomium for the late Nancy Reagan: “It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan—in particular Mrs. Reagan—we started a national conversation.”* Clinton credited Nancy with “very effective low-key advocacy” that “penetrated the public conscience.” 

It’s hard to imagine where Clinton got this ludicrous idea. One of the most shameful things about Reagan’s presidency was his determined refusal to acknowledge an epidemic that was killing Americans by the tens of thousands. The first reports of AIDS surfaced in 1981, but Reagan didn’t speak about it until 1987, at which point more than 20,000 people were dead. When his press secretary Larry Speakes was asked about it, he made sniggering jokes. In 1987, when Reagan finally gave a speech about AIDS, he called for mandatory testing of immigrants. “Mr. Reagan issued no call for legislation or state action to protect AIDS victims against discrimination,” the New York Times reported.

Nancy did little to urge her husband towards greater decency. Her record was terrible enough that the AP wrote a story about it upon her death: “Nancy Reagan, who died on Sunday at the age of 94, had substantial influence on her husband in several areas, and she also had gay friends. But she neither spoke out publicly about AIDS nor left a documented record of pressing her husband on the issue early on in the crisis.” This is one of the things that she will forever be remembered for.

In February 2015, Buzzfeed reported on documents, discovered in the archives of the Reagan Presidential Library, that show Nancy Reagan ignoring a plea for help from her friend Rock Hudson, who was dying of AIDS. In 1985, Hudson had gone to France to seek treatment from an army doctor named Dominique Dormant, but Dormant could not get Hudson transferred to a French military hospital. Dormant believed a request from the White House could help, so Hudson’s publicist cabled the White House begging for assistance. The message got to Nancy, who refused. “I spoke with Mrs. Reagan about the attached telegram,” wrote Reagan staffer Mark Weinberg. “She did not feel this was something the White House should get into and agreed to my suggestion that we refer the writer to the U.S. Embassy, Paris.”

It is hard to imagine that Clinton wouldn’t know how profoundly the Reagans failed their country on AIDS, and how much anger this failure has left behind. The Reagans started a conversation about AIDS in the same way that George W. Bush started a conversation about unnecessary wars. In policy terms, Clinton’s misguided praise for Nancy Reagan doesn’t mean much; there’s certainly no reason to think she’d follow Reagan’s disgraceful example as president. But her words suggest that, on some deep level, she really is out of touch with progressive concerns. She’s also a terribly maladroit politician. It’s already hard for her left-wing supporters to defend her record in comparison with Bernie Sanders. She just made it harder.

Update: Shortly after this post was published, Clinton apologized via Twitter for her comments about the Reagans and AIDS. 

Correction, March 23, 2016: The original version of this post misspelled MSNBC.