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Reagan’s Legacy

No look back at the nation's 40th president would be complete without remembering his inattention to the AIDS epidemic, which arose on his watch.

Hank PlanteHank Plante is an Emmy-winning television journalist who worked for CBS in San Francisco for nearly 25 years. He was a pioneer in the coverage of HIV/AIDS in the early days of the epidemic. For years in the 1980s, Hank reported on the disease almost nightly, while at the same time President Reagan was completely silent on the issue.

President Reagan would have turned 100 this month. Hank said he owed it to all the friends he lost to AIDS to write this piece.

This month’s national remembrance of Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday is focusing largely on his accomplishments. But no look back at the nation’s 40th president would be complete without remembering his inattention to the AIDS epidemic, which arose on his watch.

Consider that Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s AIDS budget for the City of San Francisco was bigger than President Reagan’s AIDS budget was for the entire nation. That was true for two years in-a-row in the mid-1980’s. In fact, Reagan’s proposed federal budget for 1986 actually called for an 11 percent reduction in AIDS spending: from $95 million in 1985, down to $85.5 million in 1986.

No wonder it was left to San Francisco gay leaders, politicians and medical professionals to forge their own way through the early days of the disease, forming what became known as “The San Francisco Model” for effectively dealing with it, a model which would be replicated world-wide.

President Ronald ReaganThe disease that we now call AIDS was first identified 30 years ago in medical journals in 1981 — President Reagan’s first year in office. It quickly took hold in the media and in the national consciousness. Yet it wasn’t until May 31, 1987 that President Reagan would give his first major address on AIDS. It was at an outdoor speech in Washington organized by amFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Elizabeth Taylor, a lifelong friend of Ron and Nancy Reagan, persuaded the President to be there. On the exact night that he gave that speech, saying the word “AIDS” for the first time in public, 21,000 Americans had already died from the disease.

The Reagans’ close friend Rock Hudson was one of them, having died from AIDS almost two years before Reagan’s speech. Hudson had been a frequent guest in the Reagan White House, even during the time that he appeared gaunt and frail. Nancy Reagan later recalled one such occasion, in which Hudson told her he had picked up a bug in Israel. But even Hudson’s ordeal didn’t seem to shake Reagan out of his lethargy.

President Reagan did have people around him who were more engaged in dealing with AIDS, notably his surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, and Dr. Anthony Fauci at the National Institutes of Health. But in the office where Harry Truman said the buck stops, the silence on AIDS continues to be a baffling part of the Reagan legacy.

Special for The Examiner & San Francisco AIDS Foundation

About the author

San Francisco AIDS Foundation

San Francisco AIDS Foundation promotes health, wellness and social justice for communities most impacted by HIV through sexual health and substance use services, advocacy, and community partnerships. Each year more than 21,000 people rely on SFAF programs and services, and millions more access SFAF health information online.