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‘When AIDS Was Funny’: Short film reveals shortfalls of Reagan response to AIDS

Former President Ronald Reagan’s response, or lack thereof, to the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s is one of the most controversial aspects of his legacy, and a new short film further illuminates the issue through the use of unearthed audio assembled from candid press briefings.

On Tuesday, director Scott Calonico unveiled “When AIDS Was Funny” on Vanity Fair’s website, which coincides with World AIDS Day. The nearly 8-minute film features previously unreleased audio of former Reagan press secretary Larry Speakes scoffing at, and making light of, persistent questions in a span of three years (1982-1984) on the disease’s outbreak from reporter Lester Kinsolving. The audiotape, which includes reporters openly laughing at the notion of a “gay plague,” puts the administration’s lack of response in perspective.

“As you can hear in the tape, the whole AIDS issue was treated by Speakes and the press pool, for that matter, as a joke. I’d like to think that the Reagan administration didn’t realize what they were grappling with at first,” Calonico told MSNBC.

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Reagan did not utter the word AIDS until 1985, following the death of his friend, Hollywood actor Rock Hudson, from the disease. He did not speak about the disease at length until near the end of his second term in 1987 during an AIDS conference in Washington, D.C. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and 20,849 had died,” by the time Reagan made that speech. Reagan also reportedly prevented his surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, from being more aggressive about raising public consciousness of the disease.

Still, Calonico told MSNBC, “It’s easy to make Reagan out as a bad guy – but, in between being California governor and running for president, he issued a public statement against a controversial issue in California – Proposition 6, that would prevent gays/lesbians from teaching in public schools.”

He made “When AIDS Was Funny” in part to raise awareness about the disease, World AIDS Day and the ignorance that once pervaded the public discussion of HIV. For instance, in one audio segment, a reporter asks: “Is the president going to ban mouth to mouth kissing?”

“I initially contacted the Reagan library to see if there were any video footage of the conferences. I was told there wasn’t but they did have audio,” Calonico told MSNBC, regarding his production process. “Then it was simply a matter of filling out a form. I knew I might be onto something when the archivist told me that he had to digitize the audio tapes – which means nobody in the digital age had asked for them yet. The audio of the entire day’s press briefing which was about an hour. So I had to listen to all the footage until I found the bits I wanted.”

Ironically, Kinsolving was and remains an unabashed conservative. “Lester was known as somewhat of a kook and a crank (many people still feel the same way),” Calonico told Vanity Fair. “But, at the time, he was just a journalist asking questions only to be mocked by both the White House and his peers.”

When asked what impact he hopes the film will have, Calonic told MSNBC, “I’d like also to raise the awareness of the public domain resources and materials our presidential libraries have. There’s lots of incredible bits of history just out there waiting to be discovered. In addition, I’d like people to see that there are different ways of approaching these types of stories. Just because you don’t have someone to interview in person doesn’t mean you can’t make a story out of it.”

AIDS and Ronald Reagan

'When AIDS Was Funny': Short film reveals shortfalls of Reagan response to AIDS