Flashback: The Reagan White House Thought AIDS Was Pretty Hilarious In 1982


Today is World AIDS Day. Mother Jones’ Gabrielle Canon has a heartbreaking story about the first AIDS hospice center. (Get tissues ready.) Reading it reminded me of another first: The first time a reporter asked the White House about AIDS.

Via Jon Cohen’s Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine, here is the transcript from the White House press briefing on October 15, 1982, the first time Reagan press secretary Larry Speakes fielded a question about AIDS.

October 15, 1982:

Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
MR. SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don’t.
MR. SPEAKES: You didn’t answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President—
MR. SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)
Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
Q: Does the President, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any—
Q: Nobody knows?
MR. SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.
Q: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping—
MR. SPEAKES: I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he’s had no—(laughter)—no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.
Q: The President doesn’t have gay plague, is that what you’re saying or what?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I didn’t say that.
Q: Didn’t say that?
MR. SPEAKES: I thought I heard you on the State Department over there. Why didn’t you stay there? (Laughter.)
Q: Because I love you, Larry, that’s why. (Laughter.)
MR. SPEAKES: Oh, I see. Just don’t put it in those terms, Lester. (Laughter.)
Q: Oh, I retract that.
MR. SPEAKES: I hope so.
Q: It’s too late.

They still thought it was pretty funny a year later: June 13, 1983:

Q: Larry, does the President think that it might help if he suggested that the gays cut down on their “cruising”? (Laughter.) What? I didn’t hear your answer, Larry.
MR. SPEAKES: I just was acknowledging your interest—
Q: You were acknowledging but—
MR. SPEAKES: —interest in this subject.
Q: —you don’t think that it would help if the gays cut down on their cruising—it would help AIDS?
MR. SPEAKES: We are researching it. If we come up with any research that sheds some light on whether gays should cruise or not cruise, we’ll make it available to you. (Laughter.)
Q: Back to fairy tales.

The laughs just kept on coming: December 11, 1984:

MR. SPEAKES: Lester’s beginning to circle now. He’s moving in front. (Laughter.) Go ahead.
Q: Since the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta—(laughter)—reports—
MR. SPEAKES: This is going to be an AIDS question.
Q: —that an estimated—
MR. SPEAKES: You were close.
Q: Well, look, could I ask the question, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: You were close.
Q: An estimated 300,000 people have been exposed to AIDS, which can be transmitted through saliva. Will the President, as Commander-in-Chief, take steps to protect Armed Forces food and medical services from AIDS patients or those who run the risk of spreading AIDS in the same manner that they forbid typhoid fever people from being involved in the health or food services?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t know.
Q: Could you—Is the President concerned about this subject, Larry—
MR. SPEAKES: I haven’t heard him express—
Q: —that seems to have evoked so much jocular—
MR. SPEAKES:—concern.
Q: —reaction here? I—you know—
Q: It isn’t only the jocks, Lester.
Q: Has he sworn off water faucets—
Q: No, but, I mean, is he going to do anything, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: Lester, I have not heard him express anything on it. Sorry.
Q: You mean he has no—expressed no opinion about this epidemic?
MR. SPEAKES: No, but I must confess I haven’t asked him about it. (Laughter.)
Q: Would you ask him Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: Have you been checked? (Laughter.)

Now go read Gabrielle’s story about what it was they all found so funny.

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Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

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