“GOP Should Remember Early Reagan,” Says Journo

Ronald Reagan remains an anathema among gay folk. Progressive Victory president and journalist Hans Johnson reminds readers that The Gipper – who the GOP still adore like a high school crush – wasn’t the worst Republican when it came to gay politics.

Johnson’s argument revolves around Reagan’s 1978 letter condemning the Briggs Initiative, which would have prohibited gays from teaching in California schools and other teachers from “promoting” homosexuality, whatever that means…

Writes Johnson:

Reagan’s letter from 30 years ago was forthright and fair-minded. “Homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles,” he noted. “Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.”

Conveying firsthand what he might have learned from gay friends like Rock Hudson, Reagan’s letter deploring the Briggs Initiative remains an important political artifact. By rejecting the proposal along with the innuendo, investigation, and invasions of privacy it entailed, Reagan showed that gay people’s liberty is inextricable from everyone else’s. His restrained voice spoke volumes.

It’s precisely his restrained voice that garnered him such much hate amongst the gays. Reagan remained largely silent during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. He wasn’t so quiet when it came to boosting anti-gay activists like Phyllis Schlafly. Johnson notes these presidential sins, but correctly points that Reagan’s move helped liberalize California’s Republican party.

The current GOP cop, meanwhile, insists on exploiting Reagan’s image for their the Right, which has become more and more obsessed with repressing gay rights, has veered away from Reagan’s personal ideology. Consider John McCain’s comment during last week’s CNN-sponsored debates:

And when I came home, I was inspired by him, and I voted for him, and I supported him, and I was proud to be a leader in the Reagan revolution — I mean, a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution, as we fought these wars together with unshakable courage and principle. And I’m prepared to follow in his tradition and in his footsteps.

We’re not sure Reagan would have approved of McCain’s since recanted gay-baiting phone call.

Mitt Romney’s no better, saying Reagan would endorse his conservative credentials: “Ronald Reagan would — is pro-life. He would also say I want to have an amendment to protect marriage.” We call bullshit on that one, Romney. If memory and record serves correctly, Ronald Reagan signed Executive Order 12612, which sought to reinforce the United States’ federalist roots. That order reads:

In formulating and implementing policies that have federalism implications, Executive departments and agencies shall be guided by the following fundamental federalism principles:

(a) Federalism is rooted in the knowledge that our political liberties are best assured by limiting the size and scope of the national government.

(d) The people of the States are free, subject only to restrictions in the Constitution itself or in constitutionally authorized Acts of Congress, to define the moral, political, and legal character of their lives.

We imagine Reagan would say that if a state – say, for example, Romney’s home state of Massachusetts – wanted same-sex marriage, that’s their business.

We wouldn’t expect Romney to understand such an argument, of course. He barely understands his own!

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  • ggreen

    Reagan was a political opportunist that never had an original idea in his entire mediocre life. His real “wife” was Michael Deaver, old gipper didn’t wipe front to back with out consulting Deaver. Deaver never saw a situation that couldn’t be sleazed up for “political” purposes and taken advantage of. It took over 5 years and thousands of deaths for St. Ronnie to even mention the AIDS epidemic.

  • Jack Jett

    I can not and will not ever let a posting go by that mentions this fuckers name withour reminding people that he stood by and did NOTHING while I watched my friends die all around me in the 80’s

    I’d shit on his grave if I could.

  • John

    Gay teachers are a totally different issue. And it’s certainly nowhere near as controversial as gay marriage.

    Same-sex marriage happened in 2004, and what we got was a George W. Bush, who saw it an opporunity to stir up anti-gay bigotry for November. Now, inside the beltway, Bush does not have a reputation for being particularly homophobic. So, Bush’s attacks were completely political and opportunistic. It had nothing to do with his personal opinion.

    How do you know Reagan wouldn’t call for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage? Because he’s a “better man” than George W. Bush? That would certainly be a specious argument.

  • Michael Bedwell

    October 15, 1982. White House press conference with Reagan spokesman, Larry Speakes”

    Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement [from] the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta that AIDS is now an epidemic and [they] have over 600 cases? [actually 800 had already DIED]
    Mr. Speakes: What’s AIDS?
    Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as the “gay plague”. [Laughter] No, it is. 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] You didn’t answer my question.
    Q: No, I don’t. 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. [Laughter]”

    Speakes repeated such ignorance/mockery in later news conferences. Reagan gave him the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1987.

    The efforts to canonize Reagan began while he was still alive, and only became more pronounced upon his death—even in much of the so-called “liberal” media. The “New York Times” obituary began with a three-column headline on the front page and it continue[d] inside for a total of four more full-page sheets uninterrrupted by advertising. The size of this death notice may be unprecedented, but the most newsworthy item [was what was] missing.

    The words AIDS or HIV [did] not appear once.” – actupny.org

    Reagan did respond to a question about AIDS and public schools in 1985 only to reinforce everyone’s fears of the kind that demonized Ryan White, et al.

    From the same source and Michael Bronski, referencing a class he was teaching at Dartmouth in 2003:

    “As we read about and discuss the history of the American AIDS epidemic in class, my students — all Reagan babies, born between 1981 and 1985 — are often dumbfounded when faced with simple facts. Although AIDS was first reported in the medical and popular press in 1981, it was only in October of 1987 that President Reagan publicly spoke about the epidemic. By the end of that year 59,572 AIDS cases had been reported and 27,909 of those women and men had died. How could this happen, they ask? Didn’t he see that this was an ever-expanding epidemic? How could he not say anything? Do anything?

    But the public scandal over the Reagan administration’s reaction to AIDS is complex and goes much deeper, far beyond the commander-in-chief’s refusal to speak out about the epidemic. Reagan understood that a great deal of his power resided in a broad base of born-again Christian Republican conservatives who embraced a deeply reactionary social agenda of which a virulent, demonizing homophobia was a central tenet. In the media men such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell articulated these sentiments that portrayed gay people as diseased sinners and promoted the idea that AIDS was a punishment from God and that the gay rights movement had to be stopped. In the Republican Party, zealous right-wingers such as Rep. William Dannemeyer of California and Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina hammered home this message. In the Reagan White House, people such as Secretary of Education William Bennett and Gary Bauer, Reagan’s domestic policy adviser, worked to enact it in the administration’s policies.

    What did this mean in practical terms? Most importantly, AIDS research was chronically under-funded. When doctors at the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health asked for more funding for their work on AIDS, they were routinely denied it. Between June 1981 and May 1982 the CDC spent less than $1 million on AIDS and $9 million on Legionnaire’s Disease. At that point more than 1,000 of the 2,000 reported AIDS cases resulted in death; there were fewer than 50 deaths from Legionnaire’s Disease. This drastic lack of funding would continue through the Reagan years.

    When health and support groups in the gay community were beginning to initiate education and prevention programs, they were denied federal funding. In October 1987 Senator Helms amended a federal appropriations bill to prohibit AIDS education efforts that “encourage or promote homosexual activity” — that is, efforts that tell gay men how to have safe sex.

    When Rock Hudson, a friend and colleague of the Reagans, was diagnosed with AIDS and died in 1985 (one of the 20,740 cases reported that year), Reagan still did not speak out as president. When family friend William F. Buckley, in a March 18, 1986, New York Times opinion article, called for mandatory testing for HIV and said that HIV-positive gay men should have this information forcibly tattooed on their buttocks (and IV-drug users on their arms) Reagan said nothing. In 1986 (after five years of complete silence), when Surgeon General C. Everett Koop released a report calling for AIDS education in schools, Bennett and Bauer did everything possible to undercut and prevent funding for Koop’s too-little-too-late initiative. Reagan, again, said and did nothing. By the end of 1986, 37,061 AIDS cases had been reported; 16,301 people had died.

    I told one of my students that the most memorable Reagan AIDS moment for me was at the 1986 centenary rededication of the Statue of Liberty. The Reagans were there sitting next to French President Francois Mitterand and his wife, Danielle. Bob Hope was on stage entertaining the all-star audience. In the middle of a series of one-liners Hope quipped, “I just heard that the Statue of Liberty has AIDS but she doesn’t know if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Fairy.” As the television camera panned the audience, the Mitterands looked appalled. The Reagans were laughing. By the end of 1989 and the Reagan years, 115,786 women and men had been diagnosed with AIDS in the United States, and more than 70,000 of them had died.”

  • hisurfer

    Who is this guy who can write about Reagan’s “heretical stand on basic freedom for gay people?” One nice letter cannot negate decades of ignorance, silence, and hate.

  • Dom

    Fuck Ronald Reagan! I repeat, FUCK RONALD REAGAN!I remember when my friends were dying of AIDS during the ’80s, and all Reagan did was kiss the asses of his RW theocrat base while he cried about how people should be more “moral”. He didn’t lift a fucking finger to help anyone. If AIDS had only affected str8 white conservative Republican males there would have been a cure by 1987 – look at the resources that were poured into Legionaire’s Disease in the early ’70s. But, of course, the majority of people infected and dying were fags, niggers and spics (sorry about the language, but that’s just the way those crazy fascist Rethug Christians really think). I hope that mother fucker Ronnie suffered the tortures of the damned before his death – and afterward, if possible!

  • John Smith

    Ronald Reagan was consistent with his political philosophy with regards to the AIDS problem. He advocated smaller government and less government spending. It was the pharmaceutical companies who have made millions on AIDS medicines, so it was perfectly logical to allow private companies to pay for research for an AIDS cure. To accuse Reagan of being responsible for the spread of AIDS or the death of anyone is ridiculous.

  • Michael Bedwell

    John Smith, you don’t know shit from Shinola about what the Reagan administration did regardless of their “philosophies.” “Between June 1981 and May 1982 the CDC spent less than $1 million on AIDS and $9 million on Legionnaire’s Disease. At that point, only THIRTY-FOUR people had died in the US of Legionnaire’s disease, and they had died five years before.” – Michael Bronski.

    RE the Reagan administration’s response to the Tylenol scare of 1982:

    “Within days of the discovery of what proved to be the only cyanide-laced capsules, the Food & Drug Administration issued orders removing the drug from store shelves across the country, Federal, state, and local authorities were immediately on had to coordinate efforts in states thousands of miles from where the tampered boxes appeared. No action was too extreme and no expense too great, they insisted, to save lives. Investigators poured into Chicago to crack the mystery. More than 100 state, federal, and local agents worked the Illinois end of the case alone filling twenty-six volumes with 11,500 pages of probe reports. The Food and Drug Administration had more than 1,100 employees testing 1.5 million similar capsules for evidence of poisoning…Within five weeks, the US Department of Health and Human Services issued new regulations on tamper-resistant packaging to avert repetition of such a tragedy.”

    Known AIDS infections by that point: 634.

    Known AIDS deaths by that point: 260.

    Deaths from Tylenol poisoning: 7.

    – “And the Band Played On,” Randy Shilts.

    John, please crawl back under your rock. The other cockroaches miss you.

  • GC

    John Smith, you seem to have an aversion to common sense. He didn’t just limit funds, he refused to even acknowledge that thousands of Americans were dying horrible deaths, and he surrounded himself with people who thought this was funny. Yes, he was responsible for the spread of AIDS. He had no regard for human life whatsoever.

  • John Smith

    Michael Bedwell, keep your vulgarities to yourself and wash your mouth out with soap. As a libertarian I don’t think it’s the government’s business to worry about Legionnaires disease or Tylenol either. Grow up and be responsible for your own behavior and your own well-being, and stop demanding that the government save you from every possible evil. There’s only so much the government can do. What the government should do is limited by the Constitution to running things like the Army, Navy, and Post Office.

  • Michael Bedwell

    Blow me, John! First you defend Reagan in terms of Republican orthodoxies [oh, yeah, the gazillions he spent on making his military-industrial complex friends richer was SOOO “small government”] and now you’re bleating the libertarian party line. I’ll take a Republican fascist over loons like you any day.

    Fortunately, you’re a dying breed. The Constitution is a great document; except for that weakness wherein it can’t protect us from the right of others to be stupid.

  • M Shane Walsh

    There is not much that I can say after all that everyone else has been so eloquently sad and angry about. If the root of evil is the refusal of (even)good men to act, then Reagan, been one of the worst men, was more evil than most. Surely he did more harm to a system of government which took care of it’s least along with just about everyone else.
    Consider that, if before people were dying around us left and right, there were at least education and prevention efforts. We might have been ahead of where we are, millions of deaths later, just by stopping it. Our culture has been nearly decimated, and we’re striuggling to figure out who we are. What if smoeone in Regans power had been the least compassionate? I will always despise the man.

  • leomoore

    John Smith – I see that you swallow the GOP myth of smaller government and lower spending, yet, the only significant reduction in the government’s expansion rate occurred under Clinton-Gore. The spending myth is the biggest knee slapper. The GOP talks about reducing spending when what it really means is cutting taxes. Reagan and the Shrub both claimed that cutting taxes would bring about so much economic growth, revenues would quickly meet expenses. Several trillion dollars in debt later, we have the latest budget projecting bigger deficits.

    Reagan wanted to spend billions on a fairy tale called Star Wars while thousands including a lot of friends died from AIDS. Private money simply wasn’t enough to provide what was needed for the defense against an epidemic. Many of those who died, did so with nowhere to live, no means to live, and inadequate health care resources available. I volunteered at a residence for those with AIDS who could no longer work and had no where to live. These were almost all gay men. Many of them were completely rejected by family. Occasionally, the families would not claim the bodies of their sons and brothers so that a pauper’s grave was all they got.

    Reagan was never consistent in his life. He went from being a union leader and a Democrat to being a liberal Republican then to an opportunist who sold his soul, if he had one, to Christian fundamentalists who are to Jesus as wolves are to sheep. If heaven and hell really existed, he would be squealing at the end of a devil’s pitchfork. He along with Jesse Helms, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and those like them would deserve it.

  • Gorgeous Black Women

    The fact that Reagan seems to be a saint to so many white people, rich and poor, still baffles me. I know more than a few white Dems who love this man. I’ve read and reread the history books. I’ve talked to people who were old enough to have a formed opinion between 1980 and 1988. I can’t find one redeeming feature. He royally screwed some of these people but they love him. Is this because he gave good speeches (if you exclude the content part)? Explain.

  • hisurfer

    Gorgeous, I wish I could explain. I was doing grass-roots environmental work in the mid 1980’s. We had targeted a toxic dump on a river in a poor white neighborhood, and were going door to door doing public education. People were angry and shocked at the levels of toxins in their water … until they learned that Reagan opposed the clean-up bills we were fighting for. And that was enough for this community to shut us out & stop listening.

    He sure did screw the people who love him.

    (Then again, didn’t Mr. Clinton screw over blacks and queers too … and who loves him more than us?).

  • seitan-on-a-stick

    Ronald Reagan will be remembered as a genocidal murderer of people dying with AIDS while he stayed silent and for turfing War Veterans and the mentally ill out onto the streets to become homeless. Good morning in America, indeed.

  • Timothy Kincaid

    Sigh. As per usual, mention Ronald Reagan’s name and watch as gay folk froth at the mouth. It’s pavlovian.

    As to whether Reagan did enough, there’s no question that his response was inadequate. I’m not sure that any action on his part – funding or otherwise – would have hastened anti-retrovirals, but a few words from the President would have gone far to change the tone of the discussion around AIDS.

    And one who would have agreed with this was… Reagan himself. After he left office he participated in a PSA for a children’s AIDS charity. “We can all grow and learn in our lives and I’ve learned all kinds of people can get AIDS, even children. … I’m not asking you to send money. I’m asking for something more important. Your understanding. Maybe it’s time we all learned something new.”

    I wish that he had “learned something new” while he could have done something about it.

    But one thing that we as a community forget. Reagan didn’t respond well to AIDS, but never did he campaign against our freedoms.

    He was an old guy with old-fashioned notions about what was acceptable conversation. And most of his gay friends were from Hollywood or politics and deeply in the closet. When he thought of gay folks, he thought of Rock Hudson or other actors or perhaps Nancy’s decorators (who were, incidentally, the first gay couple to stay in the White House). He liked gay people… but assumed (as all his gay friends did) that this was something you didn’t talk about.

    While I doubt that in the 80’s Reagan would favor gay marriage, I truly and sincerly doubt – based on his ideologies – that he would support a federal ban.

    Perhaps the clearest voice regarding Reagan’s attitudes about gay people came from his daughter, Patti Davis. She didn’t take his name, she was a hard-core liberal, she publically disagreed with his policies. But when some movie makers put words in his mouth that were homophobic, she had to speak out. These are her words (from a letter she wrote to Time Magazine)

    “I was about eight or nine years old when I learned that some people are gay — although the word ‘gay’ wasn’t used in those years. I don’t remember what defining word was used, if any; what I do remember is the clear, smooth, non-judgmental way in which I was told. The scene took place in the den of my family’s Pacific Palisades home. My father and I were watching an old Rock Hudson and Doris Day movie. At the moment when Hudson and Doris Day kissed, I said to my father, “That looks weird.” Curious, he asked me to identify exactly what was weird about a man and woman kissing, since I’d certainly seen such a thing before. All I knew was that something about this particular man and woman was, to me, strange. My father gently explained that Mr. Hudson didn’t really have a lot of experience kissing women; in fact, he would much prefer to be kissing a man. This was said in the same tone that would be used if he had been telling me about people with different colored eyes, and I accepted without question that this whole kissing thing wasn’t reserved just for men and women.”

    There are plenty of reasons to dislike Ronald Reagan or his policies. But let’s stick to those reasons and not imagine new ones.

  • dvlaries

    ” He [Reagan] was an old guy with old-fashioned notions about what was acceptable conversation. He liked gay people… but assumed (as all his gay friends did) that this was something you didn’t talk about. ”
    Precisely why can’t allow another 71-year-old get into the White House again. We need someone whose earliest moral judgments were at least formed a little later than when the Enola Gay was winging its way to Japan!

  • hisurfer

    I think it’s a measure of how truly awful the current regime is that it makes the neglect of the Reagan years seem almost benign and noble. It wasn’t just fags who were dying, either … he also remained passive while our inner cities turned into war zones.

  • Autumn Sandeen

    When I was 21 year old Californian, and of course naive, I voted for then Gov. Reagan for president, and it was in large part because of his stand on the Briggs Initiative. That Pres. Reagan later was so bad on HIV/AIDS when people saw it as a “gay disease” didn’t speak well for the him — but that was later.

    But, it is notable that his stand on the Briggs Initiative these days is lost to history — and notable because he wouldn’t be considered anti-gay enough for many Evangelical social conservatives if he ran today based on his stand on the Briggs Initiative. Although Pres. Reagan is considered an esteemed, “true conservative” icon by Republicans these days, I’m absolutely sure that James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Peter LaBarbera and others would be slamming candidate Ronald Reagan for being a sponsor of the “homosexual agenda” if Gov. Reagan were a candidate this election season.

  • hells kitchen guy

    In the clear light of history, it will become clear that Ronald Reagan was reponsible for more deaths than Hitler, Hirohito and Stalin — combined. By his active inaction, he allowed what should have been a localized outbreak – like Legionnaire’s Disease, or the Tylenol scare, both also under his watch – become the most vicious epidemic in human history.

    It’s very simple. To anyone with a brain.

  • hells kitchen guy

    You can add Pol Pot, Mao and Kim Il Jong (both!) to that list. What the hell! anyway, you compare Reagan to Hitler and Hitler comes out OK.

  • l

    In libertarian nut-case John Smith’s world, the job of all government officials is apparently to go to work and do crossword puzzles. He says public health should not exist. Probably public transportation, education, libraries, food safety, and consumer fraud protection should not exist either. Let me get this straight then… Bush is the finest president ever – as shown by his military budget and Katrina response.

    What a tool!

  • AB

    I see it will be twenty years before there is an interpretation of him that isn’t raging or apothozing him.

    My view is that he seemed like an affable man, but as a politician I see him as Machivellian with his primary goal was to win the Cold War. But the damage he did to this country was not any policy but his legitimizing religious politics. We are seeing the problems today with the political Christians more and more openly stating their Bible based desires which are harmful to human life.

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