Much has been said of the legacy left behind by former First Lady Nancy Reagan since she passed away Sunday at the age of 94. At her funeral Friday, eulogists bid farewell to the woman who, alongside her husband, President Ronald Reagan, represented a golden age of conservatism, regarded by many as the Republican Camelot.
But a hero in the fight against HIV/AIDS, a disease that killed over 20,000 Americans before President Reagan delivered a public address on the crisis in 1987, she was not.
Which is why it was so strange to hear Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton praise the late first lady’s “very effective low-key advocacy” on the HIV/AIDS front during an interview Friday with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s,” Clinton said. “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 to do anything about it. And, you know, that too is something that I really appreciate with her very effective low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience and people began to say, hey, we have to do something about this too.”
Clinton’s remarks quickly drew backlash, with many taking to social media with reminders of the Reagans’ shortcomings (to put it mildly) in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Reagan was in office for nearly five years before he even said the word “AIDS” in public. Another two years would pass before he gave a speech about the disease, which largely affected gay men. Last year, BuzzFeed News published a never-before-seen document showing that Nancy Reagan had denied a request for help in accessing treatment abroad from Rock Hudson, the first high-profile celebrity to die from AIDS. In the document, a staffer said he had spoken with the first lady about Hudson’s request and that “she did not feel this was something the White House should get into.”
Among the chorus of critics Friday was Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT group which has endorsed Clinton.
Hours after the MSNBC interview, Clinton backtracked, saying in a statement she “misspoke.”
“While the Reagans were strong advocates for stem cell research and finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, I misspoke about their record on HIV and AIDS,” she said. “For that, I’m sorry.”