Back in 2008, when she was first running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton apologized for claiming during a speech in Washington, D.C. that she had come under sniper fire upon arriving at an airport in Bosnia during her days as first lady, a dozen years earlier. She blamed sleep deprivation for the embellished account, which videotapes had contradicted. Her opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, said Clinton had exaggerated the dangers of her journey to bolster her foreign policy credibility. “So I made a mistake,” she admitted to reporters. “That happens.”
Clinton’s now the frontrunner in her second race for the nomination, against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, her only remaining rival. Before voters reached the polls today for primaries in five states, she had already apologized twice for claiming at Nancy Reagan’s March 11 funeral that the former first lady and her late husband President Ronald Reagan had started a “national conversation” about the deadly AIDS epidemic during the 1980s.
Her laudatory comments flew in the face of harsh realities from that era and drew fierce blowback from LBGT activists and varied pundits. “I’m literally shaking as I try to write this,” advice columnist and activist Dan Savage wrote in response to Clinton. “There are no words for the pain Clinton’s remarks have dredged up.”
By the time Ronald Reagan addressed AIDS publicly and made moves to combat it, tens of thousands of people were dead.
For his part, Sanders said flatly he didn’t know what Clinton was talking about. “In fact, that was a very tragic moment in modern American history,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “There were many, many people dying of AIDS, and in fact, there was demand all over the country for President Reagan to start talking about this terrible tragedy. And yet he refused to talk about it while the AIDS epidemic was sweeping this country. So, I’m not quite sure where Secretary Clinton got her information.”
Within hours of her mystifying gaffe — one particularly odd for a dedicated policy wonk like the former Secretary of State and New York senator — Clinton issued her first mea culpa. “While the Reagans were strong advocates for stem cell research and a finding cure for Alzheimer’s disease, I misspoke about their record on HIV and AIDS. For that, I am sorry,”
Her second prepared apologia was a far more expansive retraction in which she acknowledged making a mistake, “plain and simple.” She noted: “To be clear, the Reagans did not start a national conversation about HIV and AIDS. That distinction belongs to generations of brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, along with straight allies, who started not just a conversation but a movement that continues to this day.”
Clinton cited groups like ACT UP, Gay men’s Health Crisis and others “who organized and marched, held die-ins on the steps of city halls and “vigils in the streets.”
She also mentioned early legislative efforts to secure AIDS funding by now retired Democratic congressman Henry Waxman of California, a long unsung hero of the crisis who had represented parts of Los Angeles, including West Hollywood, where an outbreak of a fatal disease among young gay men was first identified in 1981 by a medical investigator for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. He passed his information on to one of Waxman’s staffers.
Waxman, then chairman of the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, called the first hearing on the “gay plague” and the need for a federal response in April 1982, despite huge budget cuts imposed on health spending by the Reagan administration, and continued to hold others during the worst of the Los Angeles epidemic. He did so at time when Republican animosity against gays was so extreme that members of Congress proposed creating registries of gay men and getting them quarantined on a South Pacific island.
Some of Waxman’s colleagues read explicit descriptions of gay sex into the Congressional Record. Another, Republican Representative Dan Burton of Indiana, brought his own scissors to the House barber for fear of catching AIDS. But, Waxman found allies in the Reagan administration, among them the president’s surgeon general, C. Everett Koop.
Waxman also came up with creative ways to advance legislation, like naming a bill after a 13-year-old hemophiliac who had contracted the virus, Ryan White, and thereby securing the critical vote of White’s home-state senator for the Ryan White Care Act of 1990. It has since funded health and support services for hundreds of thousands of uninsured people living with HIV.
Clinton and her team must have had some contact with Waxman and knowledge of his success in fighting the disease, now a global pandemic. What happened in her first take on the Reagan response to AIDS?
“She’s clueless,” opined a Sanders supporter on Facebook. “You would think she would know. Or if not, her speech writer should have checked. And it’s not even April Fool’s Day yet.”
Clinton’s supporters put a gentler spin on her attributing “quiet advocacy” to Nancy Reagan during the early AIDS crisis. She was, after all, eulogizing a fellow first lady to Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC.
“I’m Gay, Hillary Clinton misspoke while being nice to a dead woman,” wrote Spandan Chakrabarti last Friday. “Get it over it.”
While Chakrabarti noted that while Hillary Clinton was “wrong” to give credit to Nancy Reagan for being an advocate for HIV/AIDS causes, he claimed she was “technically accurate” because “Nancy Reagan had some influence on this issue within the Reagan White House. “What does seem to be true is that when the Reagan administration eventually did decide to respond to the AIDS crisis, Nancy Reagan was among the influential administration figures pushing for that decision.” Could be.
Photo: U.S President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan return to the White House after spending a weekend at Camp David in this February 15, 1982 file photo. REUTERS/Mal Langsdon/Files