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How Did Hillary Make That Mistake?

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COVER DESIGN BY MICHAEL SHIREY

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | The weird thing is this: She was there.

In May 1992, Bill Clinton appeared before more than 600 gay, lesbian, and AIDS activists at Los Angeles’ Palace nightclub. Veteran gay journalist Bob Roehr characterized it as the first time a major presidential candidate publicly addressed an LGBT audience. In the Los Angeles Times, Ron Brownstein reported that Clinton pledged a “Manhattan Project” to cure AIDS, an end to the military’s ban on openly gay and lesbian service members, and nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation.

That LA appearance, which longtime activist David Mixner, a Clinton friend dating back decades, helped organize, was key to Mixner’s success that year in raising what he said was more than $3 million in gay money for the Arkansas governor’s campaign.

The Palace fundraiser, however, did not arise in a vacuum. Seven months earlier, Clinton made a more intimate visit to Dr. Scott Hitt’s home in the Hollywood Hills, where he met wealthy friends of the gay physician associated with Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality, or ANGLE. Multiple press reports, including a recent retrospective by veteran LA lesbian journalist Karen Ocamb, indicate that Governor Clinton was joined that evening by Hillary.

ANGLE had already met with Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, considered a top tier presidential rival of Clinton’s, and many of its members, Mixner recalled, were leaning toward him. “I would say to almost a person, they were for Clinton when he left,” Mixner told the Washington Post in early 1993.

It didn’t hurt that California Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s recent veto of a gay rights bill offered Clinton the chance to argue it was a measure he would have signed. But Ocamb said the most salient factor in Clinton winning over the group was his agreement to a “stipulation” that he “speak about AIDS at a major public venue.” Clinton delivered on that ask the following May at the Palace.

Between those two events in California, Clinton had a very different interaction with a gay man, this time in New York. In March 1992, at a fundraiser at Midtown’s Laura Belle nightclub, Clinton was confronted by Bob Rafsky, a member of ACT UP who would die from AIDS-related causes less than a year later. According to a New York Times transcript, Rafsky told Clinton, “This is the center of the AIDS epidemic, what are you going to do? Are you going to start a war on AIDS? Are you going to just go on and ignore it? Are you going to declare war on AIDS? Are you going to put somebody in charge?” After a bit of back and forth, Rafsky added, “Bill, we’re not dying of AIDS as much as we are from 11 years of government neglect.”

Clinton was clearly shaken by the exchange, at one point saying, “Let me tell you something. If I were dying of ambition, I wouldn’t have stood up here and put up with all this crap I’ve put up with for the last six months.”

According to an account from Dr. Hitt –– who would go on to become the first chair of Clinton’s Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/ AIDS –– reported by journalist Roehr, as Clinton got ready to go on stage at the Palace in LA two months later, he was told that half of the audience was HIV-positive and would likely be dead within a few years. “The candidate's eyes went wide,” Roehr wrote. Clinton would tell the crowd, “I have a vision and you’re part of it” –– words that carried incredible political force with the LGBT community of that time.

Hillary Clinton was by her husband’s side every step of the way during the 1992 campaign. She knew full well that “President and Mrs. Reagan –– in particular Mrs. Reagan” had not “started a national conversation when before nobody would talk about it, nobody wanted to do anything about it” because Hillary heard that first-hand from activists in real time. Bill Clinton, in that searing New York moment, had been told gay men were dying “from 11 years of government neglect.” She knew ANGLE’s willingness to endorse her husband and help raise funds was predicated on his willingness to end the neglect, to end the silence.

The Reagans’ record on AIDS, tragically, was not how Hillary Clinton described it last week. Ronald Reagan did not utter the word publicly until September 1985, more than four years into the epidemic. As Buzzfeed’s Chris Geidner has noted, early that year, Reagan tried to cut the federal AIDS budget by $10 million, to $86 million, even though more than 5,500 Americans were already dead. The president first addressed AIDS in a major speech in 1987, at the time his vice president was calling for mandatory HIV testing.

Geidner, last year, reported that Nancy Reagan turned down Hollywood pal Rock Hudson’s 1985 request that the White House intervene to help him get into a French military hospital where he believed he might find help. Just over two months later, Hudson was dead.

Hillary Clinton quickly apologized for her Reagan comments –– and hours later did again. In her second, longer statement, she acknowledged the hurt her comments caused and that it was activists, standing up to the silence of officialdom –– first and foremost, Ronald Reagan –– who got the nation talking about AIDS. Clinton also showed an astute understanding of where the epidemic stands today –– that poverty and marginalization continue to be tied to HIV transmission and lack of treatment; that HIV criminalization gets in the way of prevention and treatment; and that PrEP offers a way to dramatically alter the epidemic’s course.

The takeaway here is not Hillary Clinton’s fluency in the history of AIDS or whether she will embrace the right answers to the ongoing epidemic. The real issue is how top of mind AIDS is for her. Her blunder about Nancy Reagan is mystifying mostly because she knows better. But handed really inept talking points last week as she arrived at the Reagan funeral, Clinton was insufficiently focused to realize how wrong-headed they were.

Our job is to keep her and the administration she may well head come January focused. Beating AIDS is not about the right words or the even the right policies, it’s about follow-through consistently pursued.

That’s why –– so many years down the road –– we all need to remain AIDS activists.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Reader feedback

Canaan says:
What I think is weird is we're having a herd of mad cows over an ill-advised Hallmark Moment at Nancy Reagan's funeral instead of focusing on what really matters: the difference between the Reagan-Bush legacy and the Clinton legacy on AIDS. What really matters is that, despite his awful AIDS record and all our outrage, Reagan won re-election by a staggering landslide of 49 states! Reagan's VP Bush next won by a staggering 45 states! The Clintons got Democrats back into the running for the Presidency. What really matters is that the Clintons increased funding for AIDS research. The Breakthrough came under the Clintons. This AIDS flashback is a good occasion to debate the pros and cons of Clintonism. Triangulate on welfare, crime, DOMA - yes, they did. But we of all people -- of all people! -- should understand the mortal imperative of getting a Democrat into the White House in 1992 "By Any Means Necessary!" Larry Kramer wore Malcolm X's words on a tee-shirt at ACT-UP meetings. "By Any Means Necessary!" That's here-and-now pragmatism, not dopey futuristic idealism. "By Any Means Necessary!" does not mean "moral victory." It means electoral victory. Early AIDS coincided with serial Right Wing wave elections. Reagan's horrible AIDS record makes the case for Clintonism more than anything. The political necessity for Clintonism poses a challenge to activists. How do we pressure Democrats without helping Republicans win? Most activists understand our complex dance with politicians. Unfocused? It's more likely that Hillary was just blowing smoke up the butt of Conservatives. She won't let Trump own Reagan. Do we want her to cede Reagan to Trump? Reagan won 49 states! To speculate about her mistake, I'd guess that the Reagan funeral took Hillary back to the days when she & Bill were strategizing on how to take the wind of the sails of the Reagan Revolution. How many of us would be dead today if Republicans had won another landslide in 1992? They didn't! Let's not forget how and why.
March 17, 2016, 10:25 pm
Andy Humm says:
Maybe there is no mystery. None of Mrs. Clinton's "apologies" say what her opinion of the Reagan record was on AIDS and I doubt she would join us in acknowledging that it was MURDEROUS--allowing the virus to spread out of control worldwide. She also does not talk about her awareness of AIDS in the 1980s. Like most people, she was likely CLUELESS as our people suffered and died with virtually no allies. So maybe when the Reagans finally started speaking about it in public that first time she tuned in because prior to that she didn't give two shits about it. We all live amidst horrible problems that we don't do anything about or don't do enough to make much of a difference--overincarceration (especially of people of color), vast wealth inequality, the continued subjugation of women and gay people by most organized religions, an ongoing AIDS epidemic concentrated in communities of color, global warming, etc. We know about these things. We SAY they are "crises" and yet we let them rage on.
March 17, 2016, 10:37 pm
Canaan says:
I think you've just proved my point. The only way anyone could believe this is if they don't know the Clinton legacy on AIDS, because we're talking more about a Hallmark gaffe than the medical breakthroughs in the 1990s, after Reagan-Bush were finally defeated by the Clintons. AIDS Activists gave the Clinton Administration an A- on AIDS research funding. An A- from notoriously and justifiably hard-to-satisfy activists says a lot. Ironically, AIDS Activists gave the Clinton Administration a failing grade on HIV prevention in the 1990s. But today, the most important factor in HIV prevention is testing & treatment to achieve undetectable viral load. The Breakthrough was immensely significant both for saving lives of people with HIV and for reducing new infections.
March 17, 2016, 10:58 pm
Bob Schwartz says:
Hillary Clinton was well aware of the Reagan's sordid legacy on AIDS. She praised the Reagans while millions were watching, but her "apology" was recorded by hundreds of outraged supporters in the LGBT community. These are votes Mama Warbucks figures she has in the bag anyway. What we need is not Hillary and more wars like the one that overthrew Quadhafi in Libya, but an independent campaign that can help usher in a new era in the United States.
March 28, 2016, 6:14 pm
ludwig123 says:
It is my understanding that Mixner and Bill have a long time falling out.---that least that is what David told me before he got married and since then the Press stories do not indicate that things have gotten any better in their relationship. For all the protests against the Clintons--and that goes back to the coup by the Colin Powell Secretary of State's anti-gay stance (which brought on the anti-gay coup something I have never been able to forgive Bill, for being so chicken, and )----one must admit--that we were not very welcomed in many places of this nation. The Cllntons opened the door that would still be closed if it were left up to folks like the Reagan's.
March 29, 2016, 7:12 pm
ludwig123 says:
Typo Grammar correction then the Press stories DOES not indicate
March 29, 2016, 7:14 pm
Marcus says:
Should gay couples be allowed to adopt children [sarcasm] considering: “...the fundamental bedrock principle that [marriage] exists between a man and a woman, going back into the midst of history as one of the founding, foundational institutions of history and humanity and civilization, and that its primary, principal role during those millennia has been the raising and socializing of children for the society into which they are to become adults.” Would you vote for someone who said that? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBj3tWGQnIc
April 13, 2016, 2:20 am
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