John M. Becker

Reagan's Press Secretary Repeatedly Laughed At AIDS

Filed By John M. Becker | December 03, 2013 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics
Tags: AIDS, HIV/AIDS, Larry Speakes, Lester Kingsolving, Ronald Reagan, silence = death

silence_equals_death01.jpgOne of the blackest stains on former President Ronald Reagan's soiled legacy is his administration's years-long silence in the face of perhaps the greatest public health crisis of the late 20th century: HIV/AIDS.

The facts are well-known but bear repeating: many of Reagan's advisors -- along with the new religious right that got him elected -- believed that the disease was God's punishment for the gay community, so he and his administration ignored the problem, even as the scientific and medical communities begged for funding. The Surgeon General of the United States was frozen out of all AIDS-related discussions for the first five years of Reagan's administration.

President Reagan didn't personally address the issue of AIDS until May 31, 1987 -- more than six years into the epidemic and near the end of his second term as president. By the time Reagan finally got around to talking about it, AIDS had spread to 113 countries and almost 21,000 Americans had already died from it. Their blood, and the blood of thousands of others who died because of the administration's lack of funding for HIV/AIDS research, is on Ronald Reagan's hands.

But as Chris Geidner at BuzzFeed notes, for at least one Reagan administration official, AIDS wasn't something to be ignored, but rather something to be laughed at.

Details, after the jump.

larry_speakes.jpgThe first time AIDS was mentioned at a White House press briefing was October 15, 1982. Very little was known about the disease at that time, but reporter Lester Kingsolving wanted to know what President Reagan thought of it, since the CDC had just declared it an epidemic. The exchange between Kingsolving and White House acting press secretary Larry Speakes (left) that followed is astonishingly vile:

Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement--the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It's known as "gay plague." (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it's a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don't have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don't.
MR. SPEAKES: You didn't answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President--
MR. SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)
Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I don't know anything about it, Lester.
Q: Does the President, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: I don't think so. I don't think there's been any--
Q: Nobody knows?
MR. SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.
Q: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping--
MR. SPEAKES: I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he's had no--(laughter)--no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.
Q: The President doesn't have gay plague, is that what you're saying or what?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I didn't say that.
Q: Didn't say that?
MR. SPEAKES: I thought I heard you on the State Department over there. Why didn't you stay there? (Laughter.)
Q: Because I love you, Larry, that's why. (Laughter.)
MR. SPEAKES: Oh, I see. Just don't put it in those terms, Lester. (Laughter.)
Q: Oh, I retract that.
MR. SPEAKES: I hope so.
Q: It's too late.

Yes, you read that correctly: the acting White House press secretary and reporters in the White House briefing room thought the idea of hundreds of gay deaths from a "gay plague" was funny. (Incidentally, Kingsolving himself was a notorious anti-gay bigot who made no secret of his disgust for homosexuality and frequently derided what he called the "sodomy lobby.")

At BuzzFeed, Geidner has posted transcripts from two other incidents in 1983 and 1984 when the White House press briefing room erupted with laughter at the mention of AIDS.

I wonder how many more lives could have been saved if Ronald Reagan's administration spent the first years of the AIDS epidemic working on it instead of laughing about it?

Photo of Larry Speakes via C-SPAN.

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