NY Times - Hillary Clinton praised Mrs. Reagan as a force in confronting another disease: H.I.V./AIDS, which was killing alarming numbers of gay men and others during Ronald Reagan’s two terms.
“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about H.I.V./AIDS back in the 1980s,” Mrs. Clinton, who was attending Mrs. Reagan’s funeral in Simi Valley, Calif., told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan – in particular, Mrs. Reagan – we started a national conversation, when before nobody would talk about it. Nobody wanted anything to do with it.”
The problem with Mrs. Clinton’s compliment: It was the Reagans who wanted nothing to do with the disease at the time.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first identified the disease in 1981, but Mr. Reagan, despite desperate calls for action and thousands of deaths, did not mention H.I.V. or AIDS publicly until 1985 and did not give a speech about the disease until 1987, when an estimated 40,000 people had already died of the disease and roughly 36,000 more had given a diagnosis.
Indeed, the activist-author Larry Kramer, who chronicled the early years of the epidemic in his play “The Normal Heart,” called Mr. Reagan “Adolf Reagan” and wrote that he “murdered more gay people than anyone in the entire history of the world.”
And in 1985, after the C.D.C. said the AIDS virus could not be spread through casual person-to-person contact, Mr. Reagan expressed skepticism about whether children with AIDS should be allowed to attend school.
Yet Mrs. Clinton said Friday that she had appreciated Mrs. Reagan’s “low-key advocacy” on H.I.V./AIDS, saying “it penetrated the public conscience, and people began to say, ‘Hey, we have to do something about this.’”
She faced a swift and fierce backlash, and issued a contrite apology within hours.
“It’s almost tempting to interpret this as withering, devastating sarcasm,” Gawker wrote. “The Reagans ‘started a national conversation about AIDS’ in the same sense that George W. Bush ‘started a national conversation’ about Iraq.’”
There were calls for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay-rights group, to revoke its endorsement of Mrs. Clinton. Its president, Chad Griffin, a former Clinton administration official, issued a statement saying that “Nancy Reagan was, sadly, no hero in the fight against H.I.V./AIDS.”
The comments struck a particular chord with older gay men who watched in the 1980s as their communities were ravaged by the disease.
“This is shameful, idiotic, false – and heartbreaking,” said Charles Kaiser, author of “The Gay Metropolis.” “There is nothing else to say about it. And she has been my candidate.”
Mrs. Clinton wasted little time apologizing.
“While the Reagans were strong advocates for stem cell research and finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, I misspoke about their record on H.I.V. and AIDS,” she said in a statement about two hours after her interview had been shown on MSNBC. “For that, I’m sorry.”