Letters from our readers.
Dec. 6 1996 3:30 AM

The Plague Cheer


Hey, wait a minute. Despite what Jon Cohen asserts in "AIDS Isn't Over," nothing in my New York TimesMagazine article stated that AIDS is over. There are two full paragraphs on the unknowables and imponderables of the new drugs. There is an explicit statement early on that "in one sense, obviously, it is not [over]," by which I mean the fact of many, many more deaths from HIV (including, eventually, probably, my own); and a clear assertion that "nothing I am saying here is meant to deny that fact, or to mitigate its awfulness." The quote he keeps using as his smoking gun--"this ordeal as a whole may be over"--is wrested from a fuller sentence, which reads, "Perhaps this is why so many of us find it hard to accept that this ordeal as a whole may be over." It follows a section devoted to the description of someone's gruesome death. Blithe optimism? Give me a break. The very title of the piece--"When Plagues End"--is deliberately and carefully conditional.

Cohen is obsessed with the idea of a vaccine. This is understandable, since he has devoted a good deal of his journalistic career to the notion that AIDS will only be cured by a vaccine. He may be right (although the obstacles to a successful HIV vaccine are enormous), but he shouldn't let his own agenda blind him to a simple fact: HIV may not be "cured," but it may be successfully treated for decades. For those of us with HIV, there's not a lot of difference.

--Andrew Sullivan

Jon Cohen Replies:


Andrew Sullivan steers clear of my main criticism of his article--that it overstates the hope that now exists--and instead resorts to unfounded suggestions that I've ignored his checked tone, taken his writing out of context, and--most absurdly--nit-picked him because I am obsessed with AIDS vaccines and have an agenda.

Sullivan's article, as its subhead states, is an exploration of the "twilight of an epidemic" that reflects repeatedly on why it is difficult for HIV-infected gay men, in particular, to consider the possibility that new drug regimens will allow them to survive this plague. The ideas he examines, often with insight and delicacy, have to do with things like past vs. future, loss of community, and excessive skepticism. The passage he accuses me of having "wrested" out of context is just such a musing. And he gives short shrift to another, more pertinent idea: Perhaps many infected people find it hard to accept that this ordeal as a whole may be over because they have yet to see evidence that these drugs will extend their lives beyond a year or two. And the gruesome death he recounts prior to this musing is not, as far as we can tell, about someone who responded well to the new treatments only to die too young and too painfully. Rather, he describes the death to set a marker in time, raising the possibility that such horrible experiences now may be in the past.

When Sullivan writes here about the caveats his article contains, he is taking himself out of context. The "one sense" he is referring to about the epidemic not being over is directed at newly infected people and those who can't access or afford the drugs. Although he does describe attending a meeting where physicians detail several unknowns for people taking the drugs--which I state in my article (listing, further, several other unknowns that he doesn't mention)--he does so almost wearily: "There were caveats, of course," he writes. The dismissive tone is critical to his entire argument, because if he squarely reflected on the great uncertainty that now exists about the impact of the new treatments, he would undermine the foundation of an exploration of The End. His analysis would seem, in a word, premature, and that is essentially my problem with the article.

As for Sullivan's claims about my obsession and agenda, give me a break. True, I have written a great deal about AIDS vaccines, and I have a particular interest in the subject. I've also written thousands of column inches about most every other topic relating to the disease. And I have written, and continue to write, about many things that have nothing at all to do with AIDS. You could look it up.


Finally, Sullivan mixes up "cure" and "prevention." The AIDS vaccines I'm speaking of are designed to prevent an infection and thereby stem an epidemic. If drugs do extend the lives of infected people for, say, decades--and I hope they do and that Sullivan is wrong about his own fate--I, too, would use the word "cure." But unfortunately, we have to sit and wait for studies that are underway to finish before we can predict the future with something more statistically powerful than hope.

The Lock Is a Crock

I just wanted to add something to Jacob Weisberg's "Republicans in Denial," his amusing commentary on the Republicans' unseemly bout of whining, blaming, and rationalizing following this year's elections.

One other--rather curious--explanation for the Republican defeat in the 1996 presidential race was proffered by a member of Bob Dole's polling staff. During an election post-mortem (televised on C-SPAN), she suggested that it would have been very difficult for Bob Dole to win the presidency in the Electoral College since, according to her, Bill Clinton went into this election with 300-some electoral votes already locked up, based on the results of the 1992 election. As evidence of this, she painstakingly detailed Clinton's electoral assets state by state, in the Northeast, Midwest, and West. By the time she was finished, one could only conclude that Bill Clinton was predestined to win re-election.


It was quite interesting to hear this said, out of the blue, about a Democratic presidential candidate. It was a mere five years ago, I recall, that conservative commentators were crowing about the supposed "lock" that the Republican Party had on the Electoral College, based on its (the party's) strongholds in the South and Mountain West. This was supposed to guarantee Republican presidential supremacy forever--or at least until the name "Ronald Reagan" had slipped into the wells of history.

Well, a mere eight years after Reagan uttered his last valedictory words, it would seem that the Democrats did, in fact, have a chance at the presidency once again.

--John Treumann

Fight Night at Slate

As much as I get a cheap thrill from exploring the world of scholar/expert rivalry in your magazine, the Thanksgiving issue was beyond the pale. Krugman vs. Wanniski, Wright vs. Gould, and (particularly) Krohn & Plotz vs. Hackworth were all heavy on the feuding and light on the facts. I probably agree with all your writers' assessments; it's just that I'd hate to see the magazine turn into a giant venting extravaganza.

--Matt Hellman