The legacy of Ronald and Nancy Reagan has played a large role in my life for as long as I can remember. As a kid I would go through dusty old boxes with my Dad, who served in the Reagan administration, full of memorabilia from his White House years. He would tell me stories about how exciting it was, about how hopeful, optimistic and idealistic America felt back in the 1980s. It was the beginning of the lifelong fascination that I would have with the Reagan era, and what it represents to people.
As I got older and more aware of the political context of the Reagan presidency, my feelings got a little more complicated. As I came into my own as a Democrat, as a gay man, and most importantly, as a gay activist, I would hear anecdotes from older gay friends of mine who were around during the 80’s about the inaction and indifference with which Ronald Reagan treated the issue of HIV/AIDS. They recalled the countless friends they’d lost and funerals they had to attend because of Reagan’s failure to act sooner to address the crisis, which, in their minds, was an intentional act on his part of bigotry and malice towards gays.
A few years ago I went to a performance of the play The Normal Heart, written by one of my role models and heroes, Larry Kramer, which was based on the early days of the crisis when the Reagan White House was silent in the face of outrage and indignation from the gay community. I talked to my Dad about what he thought, about if he thought the Reagans hated gays or had intentionally ignored the disease. No way, he replied; the Reagans had many gay friends, and in fact, if you looked at the record, had supported gay rights publicly. It was Ronald Reagan, after all, as a former Governor, who was almost single-handedly responsible for the defeat of Proposition 6 in 1978, which would’ve banned gay people from teaching in California public schools.
I also talked to other people who’d served in the administration or knew the Reagans on a personal level. I read articles online, including one written by Patti Davis, their daughter, about how her father’s opinions about gay rights and gay people had been misrepresented and mischaracterized by those in the media and in liberal political circles. My research led me to write an article for The Advocate in 2014 entitled “The Gay Truth About Ronald Reagan,” which received, and continues to receive, quite a passionate response. In January of this year I interviewed Patti Davis for my new YouTube series and talked to her about this very topic; from her perspective, Reagan’s lack of action on the issue was due to a concerted effort by some on his staff to prevent him from learning about the true severity of the disease; in response to the now infamous audio of Reagan White House press secretary Larry Speakes mocking a reporter for asking about HIV/AIDS, she responded that her father, had he known about it, would have never condoned that sort of behavior or language.
On March 6th, my father and I learned that Nancy Reagan had passed away of congestive heart failure. Yes, she was 94, so it wasn’t necessarily a surprise to hear the news, but it was strange considering that we had been with Patti just a few weeks prior, and that the Reagans had been so present in our minds in the days leading up to the news. My father was invited to the funeral but couldn’t attend, which he was pretty upset about, but the Library said that I could go in his place to represent him and my family, which was a pretty tremendous honor.
I knew immediately that my accepting the invitation would stoke anger and disapproval among my friends and followers; I felt a lot of conflicting feelings. On the one hand I fully agreed with the sentiment that the Reagans had failed adequately to address HIV/AIDS; I don’t think there’s any way to disagree with that. The difference, in my mind, was on the question of why they failed. Was it a pre-meditated decision not to act out of malice towards gay people, as many have suggested, or a grave error in judgment due to a lack of important information? The evidence, from my perspective, seems to suggest the latter.
I decided that I would attend the funeral and that I would drive there with Melissa Rivers, a longtime family friend who had also been invited. It was a truly incredible day for various different reasons. Aside from the surreal experience of seeing Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Laura Bush, Rosalynn Carter, Jerry Brown, Caroline Kennedy, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver, and Tom Brokaw among many others in the flesh, it was also amazing to meet many of the most prominent members of the Reagan administration, some of whom my Dad had worked with closely back in the day. I met Peggy Noonan who, despite our vast differences on politics, is someone I admire for her eloquence and mastery of the English language, and Peter Robinson, who wrote the famous “Tear Down This Wall” speech.
In an ironic turn of events, one of the big headlines coming out of the days events were the controversial comments made by Hillary Clinton on MSNBC about Nancy Reagan’s “quiet advocacy” in fighting HIV/AIDS during her husband’s presidency. The comments were quickly panned for being offensive and inaccurate, and Hillary quickly put out a statement apologizing and stating that she had “misspoke” about the Reagans’ record on the issue. The most ironic part of it was that the screen was split down the middle during the live interview- one part showing Hillary speaking to Andrea Mitchell with the other half showing a shot from inside the room of the funeral- with me center stage sitting next to Mr. T and Gary Sinise. Considering that this was an issue on which I myself had been criticized for my statements in the past, it was a truly bizarre moment.
In the days since the funeral, I’ve gotten a very interesting response. I’ve heard from David Furnish, Elton John’s partner, and many other prominent members of the LGBT community. The truth is that this is an area on which I continue to feel very conflicted and complex feelings; I have always felt that the Reagans failed dismally on this issue and that there is no way to defend or excuse them. They were in the White House, and therefore deserve responsibility. The only remaining question is why they allowed things to happen the way they did. It’s a question that I will probably always struggle with, and that now, with Mrs. Reagan’s passing, we may never be able to answer.
James Duke Mason is a Lesbian & Gay Advisory Board Member at City of West Hollywood Government and the son of Go-Go’s lead singer Belinda Carlisle and producer Morgan Mason, and the grandson of the late British actor James Mason.