Capitol Beat Opinion

Reagan Inaction On AIDS Seen Today In Foot-Dragging On Flint, Gun Control

Linda Pentz
Written by Linda Pentz

As we now know, it would have been better for Hillary Clinton to have come simply to bury Nancy Reagan and not to praise her.  Or at least not to praise her for something she and her husband never did; speak out and take prompt action on the AIDS crisis.

Some of the pushback, along with Clinton’s quick retraction and apology, has included assertions that President Reagan did at least do something — albeit not nearly enough and not nearly soon enough.

Others have re-quoted author and AIDS activist, Larry Kramer’s famous accusation that President Reagan “murdered more gay people than anyone in the entire history of the world.”

In the midst of this furore, the Vagabond Players, a community theatre in Baltimore, revived Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart, which chronicles the AIDS crisis among predominantly white gay men in New York during the 1980s.

As the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently noted, that crisis has not so much abated as changed demographics.  “One half of black gay and bisexual men, and one quarter of latino gay and bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime,” the CDC wrote.

So I was curious about the choice of The Normal Heart and its almost all white cast in 2016: does it now serve only as a historical document?  Or is it still in some way relevant?

After seeing the play and talking to its director, Howard Berkowitz, the answer was clearly “both.”  There had been approximately 40,000 deaths from AIDS by the time of Reagan’s first speech on the topic in 1987.  Meanwhile, lesser emergencies were given full attention.  This disproportionate response is still sadly in evidence today.

“One of the things that’s made a big deal of in the play is the way the AIDS crisis is dealt with and how something like Legionnaires’ disease or the Tylenol scare was dealt with,” Berkowitz pointed out.   It reminded him of the present obsession with the Zika virus compared to, say, gun control.

“Every single day on the front page of the major magazines in this country there is something about Zika,” said Berkowitz.  “Or Trump!  The combination is really deadly,” he laughed.  “But Zika, how many people have died?  Like six?”

Meanwhile, Americans use guns to kill an average of 91 people a day.  Yet Congress fails to act on gun control.

So, yes, The Normal Heart is about AIDS, but the lessons we take away are far more universal.

“The government incompetence comes out several times in this show,” Berkowitz said. “So we think about Flint, we think about disasters that could have easily been avoided that are caused by government incompetence and turning the blind eye.  In this case it was the gay community.  In Flint it’s most likely the African American community that was ignored.  And you think about Baltimore and Freddie Gray.  Incompetence never goes away and neither does HIV.  So in that sense it feels politically quite relevant.”

Syria is another example, says Berkowitz, where the response was “‘oh it’s not that urgent, it’s not that important, we’ll just wait.’  Or Trump.  We will wait until the monster has devoured us and it’s too late.”

Or, as The Normal Heart makes agonizingly clear, until we have done too little along with too late.