Barack Obama displayed inspiring leadership on Friday. He also promoted public health, fought bigotry, and helped calm raging paranoia. His heroic act? He hugged somebody.
Nina Pham, the first person to be infected with Ebola within the United States, had just been declared disease-free and discharged from the National Institutes of Health. Obama is a rational, science-friendly guy, so he knew she wasn’t any danger to him. It didn’t take courage to hug her.
And yet, another modern president failed a similar test. Facing the greatest public health crisis of his administration, Ronald Reagan was not heroic. He was a dithering coward.
The hateful, homophobic, racist response to the AIDS crisis is one of the most shameful episodes in recent American history. Within a few years after the first AIDS cases were reported in 1981, scientists knew the disease was transmitted primarily by sex, blood transfusions, and shared needles.
That knowledge didn’t stop the prejudice and fear mongering. HIV-positive people were fired from their jobs, forbidden from entering the country, kicked out of the military. Jerry Falwell claimed AIDS was “God’s punishment not just for homosexuals” but for a “society that tolerates homosexuals.” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in a widely syndicated column that people diagnosed with AIDS should have that fact tattooed on their buttocks. Schools refused to enroll children with HIV. When a judge ordered a Florida school to admit young brothers Ricky, Randy, and Robert Ray, their neighbors burned their house down.
Some people did behave nobly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was on it from the very beginning, with research, new surveillance programs, and prompt and clear updates and reports. A year after the first recognition of AIDS, Rep. Henry Waxman held a congressional hearing on the crisis and directed AIDS funding to the National Institutes of Health. (We’re really going to miss that guy when he retires at the end of this term.) The surgeon general pushed for sex education and mailed a frank report to every household in the country on how AIDS is and isn’t transmitted. San Francisco established new clinics and a model for how to care for AIDS patients. The Shanti Project, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, ACT UP, and other groups advocated for better treatment, faster testing, and more funding. People cared for the sick and dying. Afterward they sewed panels for the AIDS Quilt, the most heartbreaking memorial in the history of human civilization.
But Ronald Reagan? He didn’t do a goddamn thing. He was president when the first cases were reported. He was president when Congress, the National Academies of Science, and anybody with a sick loved one or a conscience called for the federal government to do more to fight the medical and social crisis. He let his reprehensible press secretary Larry Speakes, Reagan’s face to the media, repeatedly joke about AIDS. Via BuzzFeed, here’s a partial transcript of a White House press briefing from 1982:
Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
MR. SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Reagan could have spoken out against panic and called for compassion; the man knew how to give a powerful speech. He could have hugged an AIDS patient, or at least shaken hands. He knew (or should have known) that wouldn’t have been dangerous—just as well as Obama knew hugging a recovered Ebola patient wasn’t dangerous. It would have made a difference.
Instead, Reagan said nothing about AIDS for a full six years after the crisis began. To his everlasting shame, he was silent at a time when silence equaled death. Only after 36,058 people had been diagnosed in the United States and 20,849 had died did Ronald Reagan give his first speech about AIDS.*
The Ebola outbreak, especially once the disease appeared in the United States, has revived some of the more ignorant and dangerous myths of the AIDS era. Once again, religious leaders claim the disease—caused by a well-studied virus—is God’s wrath. This is a common but unspeakably cruel belief about sickness, particularly cruel because this disease preys on people’s humanity, spreading to those who selflessly care for the sick and dying.
Politicians are once again stoking fear for political gain, pushing for travel bans and quarantines that could make the outbreak in Africa worse and put the United States at greater risk. Universities, which really ought to know better, are disinviting speakers and visitors who have been to Africa. Conspiracy theories abound, and people far from the crisis buy into a smug outbreak narrative that distorts the true dangers and puts public health at risk. As Roy Peter Clark points out, public health officials and responsible members of the media are fighting two of the most powerful forces in human history: the narrative of the leper and the fear of Darkest Africa.
When people are governed by fear, the most important thing a president can do is be calm, clear, and compassionate. This is why a hug matters. It was an intentional photo-op to demonstrate that people with Ebola and their contacts shouldn’t be shunned and stigmatized. This disease is treatable if we act based on science rather than superstition, xenophobia, victim-blaming, and panic. The hug was a message that we must and we can stop this terrible disease. It’s the kind of message Ronald Reagan should have sent three decades ago.
*Correction, Oct. 27, 2014: This article originally stated that Ronald Reagan uttered the word AIDS in public for the first time in 1987. In a 1985 press conference, he used the word in response to reporters' questions about AIDS. (Return.)