As a rule, when a prominent public figure dies, many are eager to offer praise and kind words. There is, however, such a thing as being a little too supportive.
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s funeral service was held today in California, and as part of the coverage of the event, Hillary Clinton spoke to MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell about Nancy Reagan’s legacy. Most of the interview was largely what one would expect, but Clinton shared a thought that has quickly become problematic.
“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan – in particular, Mrs. Reagan – we started national conversation when before no one would talk about it, no one wanted to do anything about it, and 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.’”
Well, I guess “national conversation” might be true in some sense, since a whole lot of Americans were saying in the 1980s, “I can’t believe how offensive the Reagan administration’s callous indifference to the HIV/AIDS crisis really is.”
But Clinton seemed to be suggesting something altogether different – as if Nancy Reagan was somehow deserving of genuine praise.
Saying something nice about a prominent public figure during a funeral service makes sense, but saying something nice about the Reagans’ record on HIV/AIDS does not.
Vox’s report notes that among people in the Reagan administration, Nancy Reagan was arguably one of the less offensive figures.
What does seem to be true is that when the Reagan administration eventually did decide to respond to the AIDS crisis, Nancy Reagan was among the influential administration figures pushing for that decision.“I think that she deserves credit for opening up the AIDS money,” historian Allida Black told PBS in 2011, saying that along with [Dr. C. Everett Koop, Reagan’s surgeon general], the first lady pressed the president and the secretary of health and human services to allocate research funding to HIV/AIDS issues.“But,” Black continued, “I could never say that without saying they never would have waited this long” if not for the perception that the disease was a problem for gay men. In the same PBS segment, Nancy’s son, Ron Reagan, likewise portrays his mother as an important progressive force on AIDS issues inside the Reagan administration.
The problem, of course, is the idea of grading on a curve. The Reagan White House’s approach to HIV/AIDS was scandalously offensive – both at the time and in hindsight – so the fact that Nancy Reagan eventually took some small-but-constructive steps only looks decent by way of an ugly comparison.
Clinton, in other words, was clearly wrong. As of this afternoon, she seems to recognize that and apologized accordingly. In a statement, the presidential hopeful said, “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. For that, I’m sorry.”