Reagan and AIDS

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has a press release/letter out reminding people about Ronald Reagan’s supposed hostility to AIDS sufferers and lack of action to combat the disease. For example, the press release notes that,

AIDS was first reported in 1981, but President Reagan could not bring himself to address the plague until March 31, 1987, at which time there were 60,000 reported cases of full-blown AIDS and 30,000 deaths.

Interesting, except that it’s not true. AIDS cases were first reported in the United States in 1981, but it wasn’t until 1983 that HIV was formally identified as the cause. As Deroy Murdock notes, Reagan mentioned the disease at the latest in September 1985 when, responding to a reporter’s question about AIDS funding, Reagan said,

[I]ncluding what we have in the budget for ’86, it will amount to over a half a billion dollars that we have provided for research on AIDS in addition to what I’m sure other medical groups are doing. And we have $100 million in the budget this year; it’ll be 126 million next year. So, this is a top priority with us. Yes, there’s no question about the seriousness of this and the need to find an answer.

In fact, far from refusing to talk about AIDS in public, Reagan repeatedly mentioned it, as in a February 6, 1986 speech about U.S. health policy,

We will continue, as a high priority, the fight against Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). An unprecedented research effort is underway to deal with this major epidemic public health threat. The number of AIDS cases is expected to increase. While there are hopes for drugs and vaccines against AIDS, none is immediately at hand. Consequently, efforts should focus on prevention, to inform and to lower risks of further transmission of the AIDS virus. To this end, I am asking the Surgeon General to prepare a report to the American people on AIDS.

But hey, why bother doing any research when the March 1987 date makes the press release so much more dramatic.

Besides the March 1987 date is all-but canonical. Even Rep. Henry Waxman uses it on his website to criticize the government response to AIDS (emphasis added),

While the epidemic expanded and scientific understanding of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and its modes of transmission became clearer, the federal government under the Reagan Administration consistently refused to commit the resources and effort necessary to provide urgently needed research, health care and preventive services. Indeed, President Ronald Reagan refused to mention AIDS publicly until 1987, after 19,000 Americans had already died of AIDS.

Notice the discrepancy in deaths, too. According to the NGLTF there had been 30,000 deaths by 1987 whereas according to Waxman’s piece, it was only 19,000.

Update: A previous version of this story erroneously reported the number of AIDS deaths the NGLTF claimed had occurred by 1987.

Prairie Home Companion Audience Cheers Reagan’s Death?

Apparently, a small number of audience members of Prairie Home Companion reacted to Garrison Keillor’s announcement of Reagan’s death with cheers. Too bad the show isn’t available on the web so those of us who don’t listen to it can listen ourselves. There is, however, some discussion of this in the Prairie Home Companion’s forum area.

Salon.Com Managing Editor: U.S. Would Have Been Better if Reagan Had Never Been President

Salon.Com managing editor has a factually challenged blog post about Reagan’s 1980 victory over Jimmy Carter inaugurating a “dark age” in America,

I was a senior in college when Reagan was elected — in a very close election which he’d probably have lost had it not been for the participation of a third party candidate (John Anderson) — and that moment was like the start of a dark age. As a fiery young writer of editorials for my college paper I’d railed against Carter for his compromises with conservatism, and proudly chose to cast my first vote for an American president not for Carter against Reagan but for Barry Commoner.

It was a stubborn gesture, and in retrospect a dumb one. Too much was at stake to throw my vote away just so I could feel consistent. (Naderites, take heed.) America would have been a lot better off if Ronald Reagan had never been president. This was true while he was alive, and it is no less true now that he is gone.

The dark age comment is just silly, but his analysis of the 1980 election is a typical example of Salon.Com’s dedication to the facts.

The 1980 election was hardly close. Reagan earned 51 percent of the popular vote to Carter’s 41.1 percent and John Anderson’s 6.6 percent. The electoral college was a landslide with Reagan defeating Carter 489-49. Carter carried only Georgia, Minnesota and West Virginia.

Apparently, Rosenberg paid as much attention in college as he does as Salon.Com’s Managing Editor.


Scott Rosenberg Blog Post. June 6, 2004.

Was Reagan Just Lucky?

One of the best articles I’ve read about Ronald Reagan in the past couple days is Glenn Garvin’s review of Peter Schweizer’s biography ReaganÂ’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism. Garvin tackles head on one of the claims about the triumph over Communism that started floating around liberal circles almost immediately after the USSR fell — what Reagan did or didn’t do was beside the point. Soviet Communism was in its death throes in the 1980s and the USSR would have collapsed regardless of what American foreign policy approach had been adopted.

Which is kind of an amusing flip-flop as Garvin notes. When Reagan was elected, the consensus among his critics was that the USSR was economically and politically strong, and pursuing an arms build-up to bankrupt it was madness that would only lead to war. After he leaves office and the USSR crumbles, the consensus among his critics was that the Soviet collapse was inevitable,

In retrospect, ReaganÂ’s point that the Soviet economy was on life support seems obvious to the point of banality. In fact, thatÂ’s one of the arguments his critics use against him: that the Soviet economy would have imploded anyway, even without ReaganÂ’s defense buildup. But thatÂ’s not the way foreign policy intellectuals saw it in 1982.

“It is a vulgar mistake to think that most people in Eastern Europe are miserable,” declared economist Lester Thurow, adding that the Soviet Union was “a country whose economic achievements bear comparison with those of the United States.” (I wonder if Thurow had ever flown on a Soviet airliner?) John Kenneth Galbraith went further, insisting that in many respects the Soviet economy was superior to ours: “In contrast to the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.”

Arthur Schlesinger, just back from a trip to Moscow in 1982, said Reagan was delusional. “I found more goods in the shops, more food in the markets, more cars on the street — more of almost everything,” he said, adding his contempt for “those in the U.S. who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse, ready with one small push to go over the brink.” (By the way, Schlesinger, who has spent his life in praise of JFKÂ’s adventures in Vietnam and Cuba but foamed at the mouth over every other American military action of the Cold War, proves Isaiah Berlin wrong: In addition to foxes and hedgehogs, there are also chameleons.)

Reagan nonetheless persisted. He boosted production of conventional arms and borrowed a play from the Soviet book by backing anti-communist insurgencies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Most controversially, he poured billions of dollars into his missile defense program.

Whether SDI will ever work (20 years later, itÂ’s still mostly theoretical) and whether, even if it does work, itÂ’s a wise strategic choice in a world where AmericaÂ’s most implacable enemies are not superpowers with hundreds of ICBMs but terrorists with suitcases, are arguments for another time. But what has largely been overlooked in the debate is that the Soviets had no doubt whatsoever that it would work.

At arms summits, Gorbachev frantically offered increasingly gigantic cuts in strategic missiles — first 50 percent, then all of them — if Reagan would just abandon SDI. Schweizer, mining Soviet archives and memoirs still unpublished in the West, shows that GorbachevÂ’s fears echoed throughout the Politburo. SDI “played a powerful psychological role,” admitted KGB Gen. Nikolai Leonev. “It underlined still more our technological backwardness.” Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko understood exactly what Reagan was up to: “Behind all this lies the clear calculation that the USSR will exhaust its material resources before the USA and therefore be forced to surrender.” Most tellingly of all, the East German-backed terrorist group known as the Red Army Faction began systematically murdering executives of West German companies doing SDI research.

Reagan, unmoved, stiff-armed the Soviets on SDI while winning huge concessions on other weapons. When Gorbachev complained, Reagan needled him with jokes. (Sample: Two Russians are standing in line at the vodka store. Time passed — 30 minutes, an hour, two — and they were no closer to the door. “IÂ’ve had it,” one of the men finally snarled. “IÂ’m going over to the Kremlin to shoot that son of a bitch Gorbachev!” He stormed up the street. Half an hour later, he returned. “What happened?” asked his friend. “Did you shoot Gorbachev?” Replied the other man in disgust: “Hell, no. The line over there is even longer than this one.”)

The arms buildup (and a little-appreciated corollary, ReaganÂ’s jawboning of the Saudis to open their oil spigots and depress the value of Soviet petroleum exports) quickly took its toll. The Soviet economy began shrinking in 1982 and never recovered. By SchweizerÂ’s accounting, the various Reagan initiatives were costing Moscow as much as $45 billion a year, a devastating sum for a nation with only $32 billion a year in hard-currency earnings. Meanwhile, ReaganÂ’s rhetoric (the “evil empire” and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speeches in particular) emboldened opposition movements in Eastern Europe. Less than a year after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall fell; the Soviet Union itself disappeared a little later.

The Soviet view of SDI is fascinating. We know from recently declassified CIA documents that the Reagan administration ran a successful intelligence operation whereby the United States allowed the Soviets to steal what they thought were plans for advanced technologies but which in fact contained fatal flaws and caused at least one major disaster (an explosion at an oil pipeline) in the USSR. The Soviet system was so defective it couldn’t even see through bogus technology and the inherent problems that would need to be overcome to create a working SDI system.


The Gipper and the Hedgehog. Glenn Garvin, Rason, November 2003.

Ronald Reagan, Dead at 93

I called my wife from the car telling her I think Ronald Reagan died today — National Public Radio was running some sort of program about him, and I can’t imagine them doing that unless he had died. Sure enough, Reagan died today at his Los Angeles home. He was 93.

Reagan was clearly far and away the most important Western political figure in the post-WW II era, and his two terms as president completely altered the political landscape in the United States.

One of the things that always fascinates me about Reagan is that his views and policies are portrayed as having been radically right wing, but in many ways he was simply retaking ideological ground that his opponents had chosen to give up.

Take Reagan’s vehement anti-Communism. His description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and similar statements were widely ridiculed by the press and his opponents as, at best, oversimplistic sloganeering and, at worst, dangerously destabilizing ideas that could bring the U.S. into direct military conflict with the Soviet Union.

But if you actually read the speeches and statements he gave, they are not all that different than statements and speeches given by another great American president and anti-communist, John F. Kennedy. Like others born well after Kennedy’s death, I learned about the “ask not what you can do for your country . . .”, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and of course his assassination, but it’s amazing to go back and read Kennedy’s speeches and realize just what a hawk and critic of Communism and champion of freedom Kennedy was.

It wasn’t Reagan who necessarily lurched right in his anticommunism views, but the Democratic Party which lurched left with Jimmy Carter and others who mistook the American fiasco in Vietnam as delegitimizing anti-Communism.

Certainly Reagan’s foreign policy included its fair share of problems and fiascos, but I couldn’t disagree more with an NPR reporter’s observation this afternoon that his foreign policy had mixed results. The man presided over the rapid decline and eventual dismantling of the Communist empire, for Christ’s sake, after every elitist politician and journalist said his policies would never work and would likely result in a stronger, not weaker, Soviet Union. Yes, you could point to Iran-Contra or the Lebanon disaster, but that’s like saying that Winston Churchill’s efforts during World War II were “mixed” because of the Operation Market Garden defeat.

It Is OK to Bend the Truth, But Only in One Way

Dave Winer and others are busy linking to this Lawrence Lessig blog post in which Lessig charges hypocrisy when it comes to protesting against made-for-TV docudramas,

Ok, so NBC produces a show about Private Lynch. She says the story is not true. But nonetheless, NBC runs the show. CBS produces a show about Ronald Reagan. The man who Would Save Reagan from TV and others say it is biased against Reagan. CBS cancels the show.

Apparently it is ok to bend the truth, but only in one way.

Except that Dr. Lessig himself is the one bending the truth here. In the article he links to, Jessica Lynch doesn’t say that the NBC movie is not true. What the story says is that,

Lynch told Sawyer she does not remember seeing the lawyer, Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief, who is the focus of a TV movie that is being made without her participation. But if he did help her, she said, she is grateful.

Apparently it is ok to bend the truth, but only in one way.