In an interview with Andrea Mitchell for MSNBC, Hillary Clinton, who was attending the funeral of former first lady Nancy Reagan, spoke about Mrs. Reagan’s legacy. As expected, most of what Clinton said was boilerplate niceties – nothing unexpected as both women were members of a “first lady club” as Mitchell put it.
But things turned really hairy for Clinton – who’s running for president – when it came time to talk about Reagan’s accomplishments, particularly when it came to the Brady Bill and stem cell research. Once she got going, though, Clinton couldn’t stop, and went on to talk about Reagan’s AIDS activism, saying,
“The other point I wanted to make, too, is it may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s. 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 to do anything about it, and that too is something that I really appreciate with her very effective, low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience, and people began saying, ‘Hey, we have to do something about this, too.'”
So, yeah, it looks like Clinton’s never picked up Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On, or Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart or Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. The Reagans were not, as Clinton pointed out, great HIV/AIDS activists who “started” some kind of national conversation that inspired many. Clinton’s assertion that the Reagans somehow bravely took on the touchy subject during a time of rampant homophobia and panic is just wrong. Though the disease was identified in 1981, it took four years for the President to finally mention it. He and his Administration, in efforts to appease to morally-conservative voters also discouraged proper sex education. His hostility toward gays as well as his disastrous support of the War on Drugs exacerbated the situation. Clearly, the President and his First Lady were behind the curve. It wasn’t the Reagans who were started the conversation, it was all of the HIV/AIDS activists who were forcing the conversation, while they were being decimated by a disease.
Clinton quickly felt a stinging backlash from one of her biggest groups of supporters: white baby boomer gays – those who lived through the most devastating years of the AIDS crisis. To that backlash, Clinton quickly tweeted
So the question that looms large for Clinton supporters as well as those on the fence at the moment, is do we buy Clinton’s ooops? I for one, do not believe that a) Clinton misspoke or b) she believes the Reagans were vanguards when it came to the AIDS crisis. I believe that Clinton was caught doing what she does quite often: pander to moderate conservative, conservative Democrats, and those who view the Reagan era with rose-tinted glasses. She wanted to look classy and gracious and above partisan sniping. The problem is doing so trivialized all of the harm and damage the Reagans have done to communities devastated by HIV/AIDS.
Because Clinton is such a smart and wonky politician, this strange gaffe surprises me. It also leads me to think that this might be a definitive turning point in her campaign. It may be her Dukakis and the Tank moment. Or her Dean Scream moment. Or her Romney 47% moment. Or her I picked Sarah Palin as my VP moment.
A big part of the new, 2016 model of Hillary Clinton is one that embraces political progressiveness. Unlike in 2008, during this presidential campaign, Clinton thought “naysayers be damned!” and embraced such issues as feminism, racial equality and queer rights. She embraced the caricature that knee-jerk conservatives have painted of her for years: that she’s a leftist activist. Her relationship with the queer community, in particular, has also been a large pillar of her campaign – which again, makes a statement like hers so head-shakingly, head-scratchingly weird. Hillary Clinton is old enough and aware enough to remember the horrible years in the early 1980s when gay men suddenly started to die of a mysterious disease, one that made its sufferers pariahs. AIDS patients were dismissed, discriminated, and abused by family, friends, coworkers, employers, landlords, and yes, politicians and presidents.