- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

Bobby versus Ronnie

There’s a fascinating transcript floating around on the Web of a 1967 debate between Bobby Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Reading it, I’d say Mr. Reagan does extremely well. How was it that a manwhocouldout-debate Kennedy was soon to be described as a moron? Kennedy allegedly complained afterward that he had been suckered into a debate that humiliated him. Here’s Mr. Reagan’s discussion of racism:

“I happen to believe that the greatest part of the problem lies in the hearts of men. I think that bigotry and prejudice is probably the worst of all man’s ills, the hardest to correct… Now, we’ve found it necessary to legislate, to make it more possible for government to exert its responsibility to guarantee those constitutional rights. At the same time, we have much more that can be done in the area of just human relationships.

“I happen to bridge a time span in which I was a radio sports announcer for major league sports in our country, in athletics, many years ago. At that time the great American game of baseball had a rulebook whose opening line was: ‘Baseball is a game for Caucasian gentlemen.’

“And up until that time, up until World War II, there’d never been a Negro playing in organized major league or minor league baseball in America. And one man defied that rule — a man named Branch Rickey of one of the major league teams, and today baseball is far better off and our country is far better off because he destroyed that by handpicking one man and putting him on his baseball team, and the rule disappeared.

“Now I don’t say this is the only answer, but we must use both, and I think the people in positions like ourselves, like the senator and myself, like the president of the United States, can do a great deal of good, perhaps almost as much as proper legislation, if we take the lead in saying those who operate their businesses or their lives on a basis of practicing discrimination and prejudice are practicing what is an evil sickness. And that we would not knowingly patronize a business that did such a thing, and we urge all right-thinking people to join us and not patronize that business. Soon we will make those who live by prejudice learn that they stand alone .”

Yes, Mr. Reagan was a skeptic about legislating tolerance. And, yes, Mr. Reagan did launch his presidential campaign in Mississippi, under the rubric of “states’ rights.” But these are not the words of a racist.

Larry Kramer’s subtlety

Here’s an astonishing passage from Larry Kramer to be published in the Advocate. The piece is called “Adolf Reagan.” It gets cruder.

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:

“Ronald Reagan did not even say the word ‘AIDS’ out loud for the first seven years of his reign. Because of this some 70 million people, so far, havebecomeinfectedwith HIV/AIDS. I wonder what it feels like to be the son and the wife of a man responsible for over 70 million people so far becoming infected with a virus that has killed over half of us so far. I wonder what it felt like while he was alive to ponder this. For surely he must have thought about it. How could he not? He has been called the consummate actor who came to believe all his lines. Does this not make his legacy even more grotesque? It should. Hitler knew what he was doing. How could Ronald Reagan not have known what he was doing? But of course no one is writing about this. Reagan too is one of history’s gods. So far he has got away with murder.”

Because of Mr. Reagan’s silence on AIDS, 70 million people contracted HIV? Notice how incredibly powerful this makes Mr. Reagan. Without him, there was nothing that could be done. With him, anything. He bestrides the world like a super-magician, able to invent cures for viruses overnight (something that hadn’t been done in human history), change behavior instantly, and on and on.

Notice also how completely powerless gay men are in Mr. Kramer’s mindset — 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.

Mr. Kramer also writes: “There was no research into our health. Even as we were dying like flies.” This is a documentable untruth. 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.

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