WaPo Recycles Myth of Reagan Inaction on AIDS

December 16th, 2008 8:07 AM

On the front page of Tuesday’s Washington Post, reporter Anne Hull recalled the devastating trail of the AIDS epidemic as marked by the moving of the D.C.-based Whitman-Walker AIDS clinic. But deep in the piece, in the 35th paragraph, Hull unearthed an old anti-Reagan myth:

Several blocks from the clinic was the White House, where President Ronald Reagan had barely uttered the word "AIDS" in his eight years in office. In 1989, the Centers for Disease Control reported 22,082 deaths from AIDS.

Is it fair for reporters to imply that Reagan and his alleged inaction and silence were responsible? Brent Bozell said no when this myth started up again after Reagan died in 2004:

Start with the Reagan AIDS myth. A Los Angeles Times story suggested "many gay men like playwright Jon Bastian still feel Reagan ‘did nothing, basically’ about the AIDS epidemic that exploded during his eight years as president." Reporters like CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta also lied: "The first time President Reagan would utter the word AIDS in public would be well into his second term, six years after the virus was discovered."

Some AIDS activists in the 1980s never had anything but vicious blame for Reagan. Some still do. The Advocate magazine is touting its forthcoming essay by extremist playwright Larry Kramer titled "Adolf Reagan." It begins: "Our murderer is dead. The man who murdered more gay people than anyone in the entire history of the world, is dead. More people than Hitler even."

The real Reagan record on AIDS is different. AIDS funding skyrocketed in the 1980s, almost doubling each year from 1983 – when the media started blaring headlines – from $44 million to $103 million, $205 million, $508 million, $922 million, and then $1.6 billion in 1988. Reagan’s secretary of Health and Human Services in 1983, Margaret Heckler, declared AIDS her department’s "number one priority." While the House of Representatives was Democrat-dominated throughout the 1980s, which Democrats would quickly explain was the source of that skyrocketing AIDS funding, Reagan clearly signed the spending bills that funded the war on AIDS.

It’s also wrong that Reagan didn’t utter the word "AIDS" until 1987. Any reporter who bothered to check facts would find that Reagan discussed AIDS funding in a 1985 press conference, just for starters. But let’s turn that around on the rest of Washington. Does that mean no reporter asked Reagan about AIDS in the 1984 presidential debates? And that every interview President Reagan granted to a national or local media outlet failed to solicit Reagan’s opinions on AIDS until 1985? Using this phony-baloney spin line – that federal policy hinges exclusively on the presidential bully pulpit – is an exercise in liberal hyperbole over hard data.