By now, Hillary Clinton’s lauding the Reagans work on AIDS
has resulted in both a backlash and an apology. Here is the key moment that caused the stir Clinton’s words, as recounted by Amy Chozick at the New York Times (emphasis mine):
“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about H.I.V./AIDS back in the 1980s,” Mrs. Clinton, who was attending Mrs. Reagan’s funeral in Simi Valley, Calif., told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell
. “And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan – in particular, Mrs. Reagan – we started a national conversation, when before nobody would talk about it. Nobody wanted anything to do with it.
The assertion, here, is that the Reagans pushed back against cultural resistance to start the national conversation about AIDS. It’s a statement about bravery and achievement–a celebration of leadership on an important issue. And it’s a lie. Reagan was a roadblock on AIDS. The Reagans have a troubled history at best
on the question of AIDS, including many moments where members of the Reagan administration laughed at questions about AIDS, where Nancy Reagan refused to help personal friends dying of AIDS. At worst they are seen as the most significant impediments who had to be overcome to make progress.
Clinton issued an apology after uproar came from the LGBTQ community and, essentially, from all over the place. It’s no secret Reagan was an enemy of people with AIDS in the early days.
Here is her apology, posted to Twitter on Friday afternoon:
While the Reagans were strong advocates for stem cell research and finding a cure for Alzheimers disease, I misspoke about their record on HIV and AIDS. For that, I’m sorry. (link)
Fair enough–the campaign calls it a statement, the press calls it an apology.
But then I read this interview with Larry Kramer which came before the apology–in which Kramer commented on how he felt about the initial praise of the Reagans. The interview helped me see something I had not considered and led to me reconsider the apology.
The whole article
is worth reading, but this is the key statement from Kramer which seems to be the demand from a key figure that most likely lead to the apology in the first place. Take a look and notice the reason Kramer is saying he is so upset:
I wonder if Hillary had any notion of how hateful what she said is to so many people who were going to support her. For the first time I really questioned whether I’m going to vote for her. [Nancy] never said dipshit! And she … oh please, don’t get me started. She and Ronnie weren’t going to, in any way, talk about AIDS because they have a ballet dancer son whom the world believes to be gay and which they don’t want to confront. I’m just so disappointed in her that I may just vote for Bernie. And I’m hearing that from a lot of gay people. The gay population is up in arms over this. I don’t think that she realizes that this is a big issue for us, what she has said in her stupidity. I think the gay population is entitled to an apology and that we should demand an apology in return for our vote and support. (link)
Notice that Larry Kramer is expressing outrage and hurt feelings of betrayal–that he is talking not about a singular act by the Reagans, but about their role in the struggle against AIDS and their place in the collective memory of that time.
Reagan was the face of collective intransigence who ultimately, because of what he refused to do, became the most widely recognized symbol of hate in the memory of the early struggle to get help for people dying.
As a symbol, Reagan has a place in the collective memory if the LGBTQ community that was hit particularly hard by the AIDS epidemic. As such, Reagan as a symbol sits at the foundations of group identity.
What does this mean in terms of the politics of this episode?
It means that Kramer is not just asking Clinton to apologize for making a mistake about praising this or that kind of research the Reagans did or did not support. He’s asking for something more fundamental. He’s demanding that Clinton apologize for celebrating Reagan.
This is the point at which I went back and took a look at HRC’s statement–her apology–to see how the demand for an apology matched up against the actual apology. Here it is again (emphasis mine):
While the Reagans were strong advocates for stem cell research and finding a cure for Alzheimers disease, I misspoke about their record on HIV and AIDS. For that, I’m sorry.
Here’s what I noticed after reading the Kramer interview: The Clinton apology is carefully crafted so as to reassert and preserve her original praise of Reagan.
In the same way that Clinton used Nancy Reagans funeral to praise Ronald Reagan, she used her apology to double down on her praise for Ronald Reagan.
Why do this? Why was it necessary to praise Ronald Reagan a second time?
There are two possible answers: (1) political calculus–she knows that her insistence on praising Reagan is hurtful towards LGBTQ voters, but she has determined that it is worth taking a hit to reap whatever rewards are out there for a Democrat who says positive things about Reagan; or (2) cultural/psychological dissonance–she does not know how praising Reagan hurts this particular group of voters and so she keeps praising Reagan, unaware of the consequences of that act.
I go with political calculus because. Hillary Clinton is no dummy and she is aware of Reagans place in LGBTQ collective memory.
She has chosen to praise Reagan because she believes that the upside of doing so will outweigh the downside–that she can turn against one group of her supporters that are unlikely to vote for a Republican in order to bring some centrist Republicans into her camp.
But as Larry Kramer reminded her, this way of thinking might be premature. And after several hours of backlash, her campaign realized that praising Reagan before she has the nomination sewn up might not be a net positive for the campaign quite yet. And so she apologized, making sure to praise Reagan again in the apology.
This episode is a window into what it would likely feel like for many Democratic Party voters to experience the Clinton general election campaign. In her attempt to win over various conservative blocks deemed to be “persuadable” by the campaign, Clinton would issue carefully crafted statements that run directly counter to liberal and progressive core values, symbolism, and memory. I suspect she would have plans prepared to do this many times, using language that has been tested and vetted. If you are in the group affected, it would suddenly feel like your candidate is out of sync with your basic worldview. And if there is uproar, she would issue an apology–in which she would reassert the initial statement.
This kind of campaigning is what professionals call a “turn to the center,” but that description really masks what happens. It is a strategy of campaigning on calculated acts of betrayal in order to garner net gains.