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.”
Also appearing in the documentary was the Reagans’ son, Ron Reagan, who credited his mother with using Rock Hudson’s plight to put a face on the crisis and get the president to consider taking action.
“If you can personalize an issue — that was the way you got to him, and she was well aware of that,” Ron Reagan said.
Kevin Cathcart, longtime executive director of the LGBT rights group Lambda Legal, says he’s cynical about such accounts of Nancy Reagan’s influence.
“I’ll leave it to others to decide if she was good, bad or indifferent,” Cathcart said. “But shameful is not even strong enough a word for the record of the Reagan administration on this.”
“Did she try and fail, or not try very hard? I really don’t know,” he said.
Many gay activists, reflecting on Nancy Reagan’s legacy on AIDS, cite a BuzzFeed report last year about the final months of Rock Hudson’s life in 1985. According to BuzzFeed, Mrs. Reagan decided the White House should not intervene on Hudson’s behalf after his publicist requested help in getting Hudson transferred from the American Hospital in Paris to a French military hospital where more advanced treatment was available.
The White House aide involved in the exchange of messages told BuzzFeed that Mrs. Reagan “did not feel this was something the White House should get into” on behalf of a particular American citizen and suggested the publicist approach the U.S. Embassy instead.
Hudson did eventually enter the French military hospital — and also received a call from President Reagan wishing him well.
But the reported response by Nancy Reagan has been widely evoked by gay-rights and HIV/AIDS activists as they reacted to her death.
“When people try to crown Nancy Reagan as some champion of the AIDS epidemic, I always say, ‘Tell her friend Rock Hudson that,’” activist and TV host Scott Nevins said in an email.
“If my friend came down with a devastating and unknown disease, and I had every resource at my disposal, I would do everything in my power to get them the help they needed,” Nevins wrote. “Nancy Reagan, ironically, just said no.”