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George H.W. Bush Vilified for Neglecting AIDS

George H.W. Bush

While many praise the late president as a political moderate, some activists say his record on AIDS deserves scorn.

Amid tributes President George H.W. Bush as a moderate, reasonable Republican are coming strong denunciations of his record on the AIDS epidemic, which continued to rage during his term in office, 1989-1993, and on LGBTQ rights.

Bush presented himself as a "kinder, gentler" type of Republican and even gave a speech on AIDS in 1990, Michelangelo Signorile notes at HuffPost. But the former president, who died Friday night at age 94, "in the end, bowed to the same extremists [Ronald] Reagan did when it came to AIDS and LGBTQ rights," Signorile writes. Bush at one point even went so far as to call AIDS a behavioral disease.

Reagan has been vilified for not even mentioning AIDS until several years into his presidency and for courting and empowering the Christian right. Bush, who was Reagan's vice president and had been notably more liberal before joining the ticket, compiled a record as president that was little better than Reagan's, Signorile and other commentators recall.

"Bush did sign the Americans With Disabilities Act, which protected people with disabilities against discrimination, including people with HIV," Signorile writes. "And he signed 1990's Ryan White Care Act -- after it passed overwhelmingly in Congress -- which federally funded treatment for AIDS for people with little resources. But it took years of work by the indefatigable Democrats Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Henry Waxman, and was too little, too late. By that point, nearly 10 years into the epidemic, 150,000 cases of people with HIV had been reported in the U.S., and 100,000 people had died due to AIDS." The Bush administration also "dragged its feet" on HIV prevention and the promotion of safer sex and condom use among gay and bisexual men, he adds.

The direct action group ACT UP frequently protested Bush during his presidency, and it had reason to, ACT UP veteran Eric Sawyer told Phillip Picardi, editor in chief of The Advocate's sibling publication Out, on Saturday, World AIDS Day.

"By the end of Bush's presidency, there was only $135 million being spent for HIV efforts globally by [the U.S. Agency for International Development, Sawyer said. "Nobody was getting treatment for opportunistic infections -- it was primarily being used for condom distribution. Not only did Bush allow the epidemic to rage to over 110,000 people here in the United States on his watch, but globally, there were over 1.5 million cases. There were also around a half a million cases being diagnosed every year, in an environment where the majority of AIDS cases were going undiagnosed, because there was no testing or collective reporting of AIDS deaths. The real number is thought to have probably been 10 times what was reported, since there was so little funding and research to adequately report what was going on."

One of ACT UP's highest-profile protests was the "ashes action" at the White House October 11, 1992. Activists sprinkled ashes of their dead loved ones past the White House gate.

"'This was my friend Bruce Morse, who died three years ago,' Bonnie Burke, of Brooklyn, N.Y., said after laying flowers and white ashes from a small box just inside the White House fence opposite Lafayette Park," The Washington Post reported at the time. The same day, many others protested by throwing ashes and fake blood against the White House fence and chanting "When will the White House wake up?"

Bush was not present for the protest, having left for St. Louis for a debate that night with his two major challengers in that year's election, Democrat Bill Clinton and the Reform Party's Ross Perot. It was at that debate that Bush made his infamous "behavior" comment.

Reporter John Mashek mentioned the protest and asked Bush why his administration was perceived as doing too little on AIDS. Bush answered, "I think that we're showing the proper compassion and concern. ... I am very much concerned about AIDS and I believe that we've got the best researchers in the world out there at [the National Institutes of Health] working the problem."

He added that AIDS is "one of the few diseases where behavior matters. And I once called on somebody, 'Well, change your behavior. Is the behavior you're using prone to cause AIDS? Change the behavior.' Next thing I know, one of these ACT UP groups is out saying, 'Bush ought to change his behavior.'"

Bush could have meant changing behavior to engage in safer sex, but many took the comment as homophobic. To be fair, it should be noted that Clinton mentioned behavior in a response to Bush's comment.

"The president should lead a national effort to change behavior, to keep our children alive in the schools, responsible behavior to keep people alive," Clinton said. "This is a matter of life and death." He said his administration would do more to address the epidemic than Bush's had.

While activists, including ACT UP, often thought Clinton was not doing enough on HIV and AIDS, he did make progress. "During his tenure, he not only greatly expanded international funding to fight HIV, but he also increased the depth, breadth and funding of the Ryan White CARE Act," Forbes magazine notes. "Mr. Clinton established [the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS] in 1995 to provide advice, information and recommendations to the Secretary of HHS (Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy) regarding programs, policies and research to promote effective treatment, prevention and cure of HIV."

As for Bush, his record on the AIDS and on LGBTQ rights is not something to be lauded, according to several commentators. "If Bush had come into office with perhaps a vague ambition that he might move away from the harsh Reagan years, with its religious morality crusade, he left the presidency having paved the way for his own son's even more anti-LGBTQ administration, firmly ensconcing religious conservative power within the Republican party," Signorile writes. "And that, of course, is the same party that now proudly claims Donald Trump as its leader."

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