Hillary Clinton Issues Expansive Apology After Praising Nancy Reagan’s AIDS Advocacy

At a 1994 ACT UP protest in New York City, the message that “Silence = Death” was still in use. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/BETSY HERZOG
At a 1994 ACT UP protest in New York City, the message that “Silence = Death” was still in use. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/BETSY HERZOG

On Friday, Hillary Clinton said something that was patently untrue. Speaking with MSNBC from Nancy Reagan’s funeral, she praised the Reagans for their “low-key advocacy” about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s. “Because of both President and Mrs. Reagan — in particularly Mrs. Reagan — we started a national conversation, when, before nobody would talk about it, nobody wanted to do anything about it.”

Progressives and the LGBT community quickly blasted Clinton for the remarks, pointing out that President Reagan didn’t even mention AIDS until the penultimate year of his presidency. It was also recently revealed that in 1985, Nancy Reagan specifically refused to help transfer her old friend Rock Hudson to a hospital with better treatment because it would be inappropriate.

In a tweet, Clinton walked back the comments Friday afternoon, explaining, “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.” The brief correction did little to assuage those who felt she had effectively erased the thousands who had died of AIDS while the government did nothing.

But late Saturday, Clinton published an expanded response clarifying not only how mistaken she was, but lifting up the reality of what actually transpired in the 80s. “To be clear, the Reagans did not start a national conversation about HIV and AIDS,” she wrote. “That distinction belongs to generations of brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, along with straight allies, who started not just a conversation but a movement that continues to this day.”


She highlighted the grassroots efforts of groups who raised awareness about the epidemic, who “reminded us again and again, Silence = Death,” and also praised “ the unsung heroes who fought on the front lines of the crisis, from hospital wards and bedsides, some with their last breath.”

After recapping her own commitment to fighting AIDS both at home and abroad, Clinton outlined several specific plans for continuing that fight:

  • Continue to increase HIV and AIDS research and invest in the promising innovations that research is producing.
  • Expand access to PrEP, including for at-risk populations.
  • Call on Republican governors to put people’s health and well-being ahead of politics and extend Medicaid, which would provide health care to those with HIV and AIDS.
  • Call on states to reform outdated and stigmatizing HIV criminalization laws.
  • Increase global funding for HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment.
  • Cap out-of-pocket expenses and drug costs — and hold companies like Turing and Valeant accountable when they attempt to gouge patients by jacking up the price of lifesaving medications.

What started Friday as a flub turned into what may be the most detailed platform on fighting HIV/AIDS that any presidential candidate has ever issued. It may not fully assuage those put off by her comments, but it does create a new visibility around the ongoing work of the HIV advocacy movement. Veteran AIDS activist Peter Staley admitted on Facebook that the response does help ease the pain of the original remarks, “but I want to keep making lemonade out of this.”