Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders said he’s “not sure where Secretary Clinton got her information” when she stated Friday that former president Ronald Reagan and his late wife, Nancy Reagan, were leaders in the early fight against HIV and AIDS as the epidemic ravaged the country.
“I just don’t know what she was talking about,” Sanders told CNN’s Jake Tapper on State of the Union today.
Two days — and two apologies — after Hillary Clinton erroneously claimed that the former president and first lady helped “start a national conversation” about HIV and AIDS in the 1980s, the Vermont Senator still seemed confounded by Clinton’s “mistake.”
“In fact that was a very tragic moment in modern American history. There were many, many people who were dying of AIDS and in fact there was demand all over this country for President Reagan to start talking about this terrible tragedy and yet he refused to talk about it while the AIDS epidemic was sweeping this country. So I’m not sure where Secretary Clinton got her information. I’m glad she apologized, but the truth is it was not President Reagan and Nancy Reagan who were leader in talking about this issue. Quite the contrary. They refused to allow that discussion to take place. They didn’t get involved in it while so many fellow Americans were getting sick and dying.”
Sanders is correct. While Nancy Reagan is sometimes credited with pushing her husband to do something about AIDS, the Reagans’ ultimate legacy around the devastating virus is one of prolonged silence, as the then-president didn’t give a formal speech about the epidemic until 1987, when more than 40,000 Americans had died from the disease.
In February 2015, BuzzFeed's Chris Geidner reported on a previously overlooked moment in history when Hudson, dying of AIDS in a hospital in France, sent a telegram to the White House looking for help. He wanted to be admitted to a French military hospital that was believed to have special treatment, but he needed the Reagans to intervene on his behalf to be admitted because he wasn’t a French citizen.
Nancy Reagan responded to the telegram in July 1985 and denied the request, reportedly because helping a Hollywood friend was seen as unfair. But she requested the press be notified that President Reagan had called Rock Hudson.
Watch Sanders’s full interview on State of the Union below, with the discussion of Clinton’s comments on the Reagans and the AIDS epidemic beginning at the 7:50 mark.