AIDS in the Age of Reagan

In October 1982, when I was a sophomore in high school, this conversation transpired at a press briefing conducted by Larry Speakes, spokesman for Ronald Reagan.

Journalist: Larry, does the President have any response to the announcement [from] the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?

Speakes: What’s AIDS?

Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as the “gay plague.” [Laughter] No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the  President is aware of it?

Speakes: I don’t have it. Do you? [Laughter]

Update (November 10, midnight)

A reader just sent me an email with a link to an article explaining that it was conservative journalist Les Kinsolving who raised the question with Speakes. I had been wondering about that myself, so was pleased to get this information. The whole exchange is revealing, with Kinsolving, to his credit, becoming more aggressive as it goes on and Speakes becoming more slimy.

As I pointed out over at Crooked Timber earlier this evening, what’s most revealing about this exchange is not the awfulness of the Reagan Administration; it’s that the laughter was so widely shared among the press corps, which included, presumably, some fairly liberal people.


  1. Linnaeus November 9, 2012 at 9:58 pm | #

    Wow. “Callous” doesn’t even begin to describe that remark.

  2. Cade DeBois (@lifepostepic) November 9, 2012 at 10:10 pm | #

    I haven’t forgotten this about the Reagan White House. I was pretty young too, but I learned so much about government and politics from watching how the President and his WH could so easily dismiss and ignore a whole segment of the American citizenry who were suffering and DYING just because they personally did not approve of these people and thus presumed that they had no real obligation to give a damn about the lives of these Americans. Yeah. Good times.

  3. Scott Preston November 9, 2012 at 10:13 pm | #

    Mr. Entertainment.

  4. Frank Moraes November 9, 2012 at 10:36 pm | #

    This is one of the things I got from your book. The main thing that conservatives react against is inclusion of minority groups. In my lifetime, the most obvious thing about conservatives has been their dedication in-group politics. If the AIDS epidemic were just breaking today, I’m sure that Romney and his campaign would have said much the same thing.

    • The Rancid Honeytrap (@ohtarzie) November 10, 2012 at 12:08 am | #

      Should you ever let facts intrude on Robin’s tidy thesis that all evil resides in conservatives and all good resides in liberals the following fun facts:

      1. The journalist probing Speakes was a conservative himself. Liberal journalists clearly weren’t taking an interest either.

      2. Democratic politicians also were not insisting that the matter be attended to. New York mayor Ed Koch was as reviled by ACT UP as Reagan.

      3. Bill Clinton’s record on AIDS was abysmal. At least Reagan never courted LGBT people, and more crucially, took money and votes, before stabbing them in the back.

      Carry on, dipshits.

      • Corey Robin November 10, 2012 at 12:17 am | #

        Were you the one who just sent me that article about Kinsolving? Thanks, if so. Posted it as an update along with a link to what I said over at Crooked Timber; this wasn’t meant only as specific comment about Reagan or his administration.

    • Seth Edenbaum November 10, 2012 at 11:04 pm | #

      The Reactionary MInd

      “With the exception of Jean-Marie Le Pen, all the most high-profile fascists in Europe in the past thirty years have been gay.”

      Liberals oversimplify everything

  5. Mitchell Freedman November 10, 2012 at 9:38 am | #

    Rancid Honeytrap is right to say it is more complicated, but calling “dipshit” to Corey and the others is not excusing Larry Speakes and Reagan. For all we know the journalist was a closet case interested in the subject, as research on the web reveals he was a major homophobe who also described himself as pro-choice and anti-death penalty. Not sure if he’s “conservative” in any usual sense of the term as bandied about on corporate owned television. To say Democratic politicians (read “liberals”) were not concerned is too pat too. Ed Koch was considered a liberal at the time, and he and Gov. Cuomo were indeed ripped by ACT UP for wanting to regulate and sometimes close bathhouses in NYC and elsewhere in the state. I was a regular reader of The Village Voice at the time and was shocked at this reaction against Koch and Cuomo. I am not gay, and I was one of those bleeding hearts worried about how AIDS was devastating the gay community and how it was posing a major health threat to the larger community. I thought too the libertine activities of the gay-disco crowd was spreading it, but found myself called “conservative” in a bad way for saying that. And meanwhile, real conservatives like Reagan were more often rooting for the disease to spread as punishment to the gays–just read Randy Shilts’ “And the Band Played On.” It was, as usual, liberals who were in the middle.

    • The Rancid Honeytrap (@ohtarzie) November 11, 2012 at 1:46 am | #

      After watching Mitchell Freedman turning the usual somersaults to make all evil conservative and all good llberal, I feel doubly vindicated for ‘dipshits’. Corey, your disclaimer may be genuine, but the way your commenters behave certainly conforms to my view of this post and, indeed, to your career at the moment. I am quite sure, that if Obama were a Republican, and everything else were equal, you wouldn’t be talking endlessly of dead or nearly-dead wingers.


      • Glenn November 11, 2012 at 2:29 pm | #

        From my perspective both R’s and D’s are conservative, both then and now.

        Remember the Reagan Democrats that empowered Reagan in the expansion of Carter’s anti-union deregulation, Carter’s funding of Central American Contras, and his 6 trillion dollar military buildup?

        So much of what is attributed to Republican ideology begins with Democrats.

    • The Rancid Honeytrap (@ohtarzie) November 11, 2012 at 1:50 am | #

      PS: Freedman, your characterization of Koch’s problems with ACT UP are laughably uninformed. Do you people ever feel inclined to actually know things?

      • Mitchell Freedman November 11, 2012 at 10:32 pm | #

        Are you smoking the marijuana in Oregon already, Rancid? Ed wanted to close the bathhouses, and in 1985 finally got his way. He then only closed the homosexual bathhouses and initially left Plato’s Retreat open until legal advisers said it was discriminatory. He then closed Plato’s Retreat. I again was reading the Village Voice in that time and was acutely aware of this saga. It is terrible the way Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner lie about Koch in this period up through this day. If that is what you’re basing your attack on my analysis, get out of the theater and read the record.

        Also, you are the one who initially said things are complicated, and when I show that complication, you call it a somersault.

        Being called a dipshit by the likes of you, who hides behind a phony moniker, is doubly amusing as it is you who are revealed as the dipshit in the sense of being terribly ignorant of historical factual information.

    • Thomas J. Coleman May 26, 2014 at 8:50 pm | #

      Actually the anger at the weaselly Koch was far more due to his stubborn refusal to deal with the horrifying
      sick and dying than the bath house issue. Apparently he was a terrified closet case and had already been stung by Cuomo campaign signs in a prior race that declared “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” But Reagan was the worst. In order to garner the fundamentalist vote, he went along with transforming the GOP into the anti-gay hate group that it very much remains today. He also said next to nothing and did next to nothing about AIDS when it could have done the most good. 36,000,000 deaths and counting. Silence = Death. Republican = Bigot.

  6. jonnybutter November 12, 2012 at 11:26 am | #

    what’s most revealing about this exchange is not the awfulness of the Reagan Administration; it’s that the laughter was so widely shared among the press corps, which included, presumably, some fairly liberal people.

    What I find interesting about this is how well it fits in with the shift in attitudes in the US right around the Reagan years, in particular the advent of strong social atomization and the hardening of hierarchy. ‘*I* don’t have it, do you?!’ is not just a callous thing to say re: gay people; it’s also a kind of whistling in the dark, an expression of fear in the form of swaggering put down of people ‘below’ you. Kind of the same reason jokes about prison rape seemed to be not only main-stream acceptable for quite a while, but also weirdly prevalent. It is precisely the fact that this stuff *could* happen to anybody – that you are one paycheck away from disaster or one step away from prison or could get AIDS or something else – that produces the mania for drawing the distinction, and the cruelty. oh the humanity.

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