The real outrage over Reagan

Guest column

I am actually surprised at the Republican reaction to the information that has surfaced about the upcoming CBS miniseries “The Reagans.”

Surprised not because of the charges that Hollywood is a tool of the left or that James Brolin — a well-regarded TV actor who has played a U.S. Air Force officer for the last few years — is incapable of an honest portrait of the former president because he is married to Barbra Streisand.

No, all this I would expect.

What really boggles my mind is how much of the outrage is centered on the scenes highlighting President Reagan’s disregard for people with AIDS.

Hello! Remember?

More Americans died of AIDS during Ronald Reagan’s presidency than in all of this nation’s wars in the last 30 years. I don’t care if he ever actually used anti-gay language or projected a biblical rationale for his lack of action. I don’t care if he was homophobic or not. That debate is pointless today.

The fact is, he didn’t address the most serious health crisis of his presidency because the people most affected were gay.

I was an early “AIDS activist” in those years. As the Washington lobbyist for the then mayor of San Francisco, Dianne Feinstein, I was one of the people in the early ’80s trying to promote a federal response to the impending AIDS crisis. Respected mayors like Feinstein and thoughtful congressional leaders like Ted Kennedy and Henry Waxman were begging for federal attention.

It took a Republican, Sen. Lowell Wicker of Connecticut, then chairman of the Labor-HHS Appropriations subcommittee, two years to get the NIH to cooperate with an appropriation for research, even after the CDC had declared that transmission methods were certain to spread the disease very quickly.

Hundreds of people were being infected daily. And then the deaths started coming so rapidly. I was only in my early ’20s and my friends were dying.

Reagan and his political cronies, the same ones who are now crying foul, aided and promoted the ignorance. The CDC knew how to alert the public about health risk. They had done it on several public health crises in the past. They were professionals. And their hands were tied.

Even when the Reagans’ friend Rock Hudson became seriously ill, there was no movement.

So forgive my lack of concern if Reagan’s legacy is marred in this movie by an implied disregard for people with AIDS. No depiction could possibly be as horrific as the truth actually is. Hundreds of people I knew are dead. Add them to the half-million people who have died of this disease in the US alone since 1981 and you can imagine the toll on their friends and families.

And lest we forget, almost 1 million people in this country are infected and living with HIV today.

Add these numbers up, attach them to the mostly young lives they account for, and you just may begin to understand the pain and outrage many of us still feel. We will never know how many of these deaths could have been prevented if Reagan had been the moral leader these revisionists would have him be.

And by the way, much of the good public education that finally was implemented (albeit seven years late) by Reagan’s successor, President George Bush, and improved upon by President Clinton, is being wiped away by the current Bush White House.

Many Americans would be surprised to know the CDC education programs have been revised in the last year to eliminate “safe sex” information for young people, gay or straight, replaced by information promoting abstinence. This may seem like a worthy goal, but it is playing with young people’s lives today with an obscene recklessness and harkens back to those dark early years.

Is it a shame that the legacy of this wonderfully popular president is marred by this movie’s depiction of his lack of sympathy on AIDS? No. It is a shame that the show’s critics are not outraged even more by the truth.

(Hilary Rosen is a business and political television commentator and the former CEO of the Recording Industry Assn. of America.)

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