[Content Note: HIV/AIDS stigma; homophobia.]
Earlier today, at Nancy Reagan's funeral, Hillary Clinton said: "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, you know, that, too, is something that I really appreciate—with her very effective low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience, and people began to say, 'Hey, we have to do something about this, too.'"
This is aggressively wrong.
President Ronald Reagan pretty famously did not even publicly say the word "AIDS" during the first seven years of his presidency, despite the fact that AIDS (then called GRID) was identified in 1981, his first year in office.
It was only after HIV/AIDS activist and actress Elizabeth Taylor persuaded President Reagan to attend an event, nearly two years after their mutual friend Rock Hudson had died of AIDS, along with more than 20,000 other Americans, that he finally said the word aloud.
It's tough to "start a conversation" about something you refuse to even say, or acknowledge the existence of.
Further, Clinton's contention that "nobody would talk about it, nobody wanted to do anything about it" is a gross erasure of all the HIV/AIDS activists and patients who sure as shit were talking about it and doing everything they could about it, including pleading with the Reagan administration (for a start) to do something about it.
The problem wasn't so much that it was "difficult for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s," but that the people in power found it "difficult" to listen. Or care.
And insomuch as it was difficult for people with HIV/AIDS to talk about it, that was because of the stigma around HIV/AIDS that persists to this day. Which the Reagan administration was key in facilitating and maintaining with their silence and hostility.
No one should ever say anything nice when it comes to the Reagans and their attitudes toward HIV/AIDS, no less credit them with starting a national conversation.
Clinton needs to issue an apology for this. It's not just factually wrong; it's harmful.
UPDATE: Clinton has issued a statement and apology: "While the Reagans were strong advocates for stem cell research and finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease, I misspoke about their record on HIV and AIDS. For that, I'm sorry."
While I genuinely appreciate the actual words "I'm sorry," quickly delivered, "misspoke" isn't right when you get it so badly wrong.
I certainly hope there is a more reflective statement forthcoming, that shows some recognition of how her utterly ahistorical revisionist history of the Reagans' position on HIV/AIDS was not merely inaccurate, but hurtful.