Activists: Nancy Reagan should have pushed harder on AIDS

Nancy and Ronald Reagan

Nancy and Ronald Reagan AP

NEW YORK — Gay-rights and HIV/AIDS activists remain bitter at Ronald Reagan for a slow response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Views are more mixed about his wife, Nancy, but there’s deep regret that she didn’t push sooner and more forcefully for stepped-up government action.

The first news reports about AIDS surfaced in 1981 — just months into the Reagan presidency — and within a few years, thousands of gay men had died of the disease. Yet Reagan didn’t make an early push to fund expanded medical research and didn’t make his first public comments about AIDS until 1987, at which time more than 20,000 Americans had died of its complications.

Nancy Reagan, who died on Sunday at the age of 94, had substantial influence on her husband in several areas, and she also had gay friends. But she neither spoke out publicly about AIDS nor left a documented record of pressing her husband on the issue early on in the crisis.

“On a personal level, she was someone who was not against gay people,” said Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House adviser on gay issues. “But when the country needed leadership, President Reagan was not there, and his wife — who was able to do more — was not willing to step up. It reflects rather harshly on both of them.”

Peter Staley, a longtime HIV/AIDS activist based in New York, said Ronald Reagan virtually ignored the AIDS crisis in an era where the federal government had responded swiftly to less deadly outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease and other ailments.

As for Nancy Reagan, Staley said, “I don’t know her heart” — but he expressed disdain that she failed to persuade her husband to speak out about AIDS sooner.

Among those praising Nancy Reagan was Gregory Angelo of Log Cabin Republicans — a pro-gay-rights GOP group. He credited Mrs. Reagan for arranging the first overnight stay at the White House by an openly gay couple, and for encouraging her husband to engage in the fight against AIDS.

“RIP Nancy Reagan,” Angelo said on Facebook. “A total class act.”

In 2011, PBS aired a documentary that addressed Nancy Reagan’s role in the AIDS crisis. Among those interviewed was historian Allida Black, who said Mrs. Reagan’s friendship with two AIDS victims — movie star Rock Hudson and prominent attorney Roy Cohn — prompted her to encourage her husband to seek more funding for AIDS research.

“I think she deserves credit for opening up the AIDS money,” Black told PBS. “But I could never say that without saying they never would have waited this long if it was redheaded sixth graders.”

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