Larry Kramer's Advocate essay on Reagan stirs national debate
June 12 2004 12:00 AM ET
An Advocate essay by pioneering AIDS activist Larry Kramer criticizing former president Ronald Reagan for his inaction on AIDS has stirred a heated national debate more than one week before the piece is set to appear on newsstands. In his commentary, which Kramer titled "Adolf Reagan," the founder of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, a direct-action activist group started during the Reagan administration, describes the deceased president as a "murderer" who failed to confront the deadly disease as it swept through the gay population. "The man who murdered more gay people than anyone in the entire history of the world is dead," Kramer writes. "More people than Hitler even. In all the tributes to his passing, as I write this two days after his death, not one that I have seen has mentioned this. The hateful New York Times ("all the news that's fit to print") of course said nothing about this. We still are not fit to write about with total honesty in their pages. Not really. Just as we were not fit for Ronald Reagan to talk about us. What kind of president is that."
In response to queries about his feelings on Reagan, Kramer sent his Advocate piece out to journalists and fellow activists. Among those critical of Kramer's words was the New York Post, which wrote in its Page Six column on Friday, "Amidst the outpouring of love for Ronald Reagan, a handful of detractors continue to spew their bile. The hatred seems strongest in those who want to blame the former president for AIDS, a disease spread through unsafe sexual practices and elicit use of hypodermic needles."
Advocate columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote a critical piece for The Washington Times in which he said, "There is, of course, no moral defense of the Reagan administration's early silence and negligence with regard to HIV. But there is something extraordinary about Mr. Kramer's insistence that Ronald Reagan was personally responsible for every single case of HIV that there has ever been. Not indirectly responsible, mind you. Directly responsible." Such a statement makes Reagan a very powerful man, Sullivan continued, and gay men of his time powerless, "which is strange, since Mr. Kramer did a lot to show just how powerful gay men could be in tackling their own health crisis in league with and outside government channels.... The Reagan administration spent $5.7 billion on AIDS prevention and research. It could have done more on prevention efforts--then-surgeon general C. Everett Koop was sidelined in his attempts to tackle the problem adequately. And Mr. Reagan's silence on the matter for four-and-a-half years is a deep blemish on his record--unimaginable if the early victims of the disease had been heterosexual. But legitimate, stringent criticism shouldn't become nutty hyperbole. The bitterness is understandable; the outrage justified. But the facts also deserve a hearing."
Chris Crain, editorial director for Window Media, parent company of the Washington, D.C.-based gay newspaper the Washington Blade and other gay publications, responded to Kramer's essay with a supportive editorial. "The raw anger still felt all these years later by many older gay men at the mere mention of Ronald Reagan's name is as much about the scope of their loss, which is unimaginable to those of us who weren't there to see it, as it is a considered judgment about the U.S. government's response to the epidemic."