Nancy Reagan died two weeks ago at the age of 94.
Immediately, media outlets jumped on the headline, cranking out uplifting, sentimental stories about her compassion and her unfaltering support for her husband. Presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton took the opportunity to appeal to undecided conservatives by speaking fondly of Mrs. Reagan’s character.
The death of a formerly visible public figure often creates peculiar revisions to history. But eulogizing does not justify the erasure of sin.
Nancy Reagan does not deserve to be remembered as a caring, charitable woman. Her complicity in the Reagan administration’s active ignorance of the AIDS crisis leaves her with blood on her hands—that of the 61,000 Americans who had died by the time her husband left office.
Arguments that protest this condemnation as unfair will likely point to the fact that she wasn’t actually in office herself. Unfortunately, this does little to exonerate her from blame. By all accounts, Mrs. Reagan had a strong influence on her husband, and so his failings are at least partially hers. Michael K. Deaver, a longtime aide and close friend of the Reagans, said that, “without Nancy, there would have been no Governor Reagan, no President Reagan.”
The Reagan administration’s ugly inaction in the face of AIDS is notorious. Tens of thousands died before President Reagan even publicly addressed the epidemic in 1987. Members of his administration scorned the queers who died emaciated in hospital beds, suggesting that this was simply God’s way of fixing the aberration of homosexuality. Amid these cries for help, Nancy Reagan’s queer activism amounted to socializing with and employing some of her gay friends from her and her husband’s Hollywood days.
One of these friends was Rock Hudson, a Hollywood superstar of the 1950s and '60s. Masculine, handsome, and charismatic, Hudson was incongruous with the nation’s image of homosexuals at the time. Of course, he wasn’t out publicly—but the Reagans knew. When Hudson was diagnosed with HIV in June of 1984, he kept it a secret, continuing to work while searching for treatment.
A year later, the disease had almost killed him. He was abroad in Paris, because (shocker) the AIDS treatment he needed wasn’t available in the United States. Emaciated and fragile, he collapsed in his hotel room on July 21, 1985.
Hudson was in Paris for Dr. Dominique Dormant, an army doctor who had treated the actor in secret that past fall. Only one hospital was apparently equipped to administer the experimental treatments—a military hospital in the Parisian suburb of Clamart. But because the actor was not French, the commanding general of the hospital would not admit Hudson.
In desperation, Hudson’s publicist sent a telegram to the White House, pleading for some sort of assistance. White House staffer Mark Weinberg received the telegram and brought it to Mrs. Reagan. According to Weinberg, she said that “she did not feel this was something the White House should get into” and that they’d better “refer the writer to the U.S. Embassy, Paris.”
Hudson’s deathbed plea for help piqued no sympathies from Mrs. Reagan or her husband. He died that October.
Which brings us to presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, who incomprehensibly and violently revised this history when talking about Nancy Reagan’s death. According to her, the Reagans started the American conversation about AIDS “when, before, no one was talking about it.” Even more bizarre is that she not only had her history terribly wrong, but she volunteered this 'fun' fact entirely without being prompted.
Actually, Mrs. Clinton, there were a few people who were talking about it—the ones who were dying of it. The LGBT community had to fight furiously in the face of institutions who turned away and scorned them. The mourners, the protestors, and the artists rammed the realities of the epidemic down the American public’s throat, desperately fighting the homophobic public that denied them help. Nancy Reagan deserves zero credit. Actually, she deserves to be remembered as someone whose homophobic callousness allowed the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.
Someone on Hillary’s staff with a semblance of a grasp on the history of the AIDS crisis must have told her that she’d made an oopsie, because she issued an apology on Twitter a few hours later. But I’m less concerned with her apology, and more interested in what it betrays. What do we do with Hillary’s ostensible support of a community of which she clearly has no understanding? This is foundational stuff, and it is inexcusable to be negligent of it. Her frantic damage control to secure a voting bloc that she (unfortunately) already has on lock doesn’t really alleviate my concerns.
I urge people, not just of the queer community, but all communities, to question whether Clinton has their interests at heart. It’s boldfaced arrogance to claim to represent the interests of any marginalized community without understanding their history, and then to expect their votes.
Spencer Campbell PO '19 is an intended history major from New Rochelle, New York. He enjoys hiking, queer politics, and Frank Ocean.