On Scene Bill Wilson Presidential Aids Politics

By Bill Wilson
Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson © 2011

When the disease that would become known as Aids was first noted in a CDC report in June 0f 1981, few could have predicted the dramatic impact the disease would have on a generation of political activism. The idea that a group of people would fight being labeled “victims” and would demand new ways of accessing experimental drugs was new to the political scene.

A Keith Haring designed ACTUP Poster from collection of Bill Wilson

Meeting in Denver in 1983 at the Second National Aids Forum, a group of people with Aids wrote what would be known as the Denver Principles. They proclaimed “We condemn attempts to label us as “victims,” a term which implies defeat, and we are only occasionally “patients,” a term which implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are “People With AIDS.”

I still inwardly cringe a bit every time I hear Ronald Reagan referred to as the great communicator. It took him far to long to use the word Aids in public. I attended the AmFAR dinner on May 31, 1987, which was one of the first times he had spoken on Aids.

President and Mrs Reagan with Elizabeth Taylor checking the script at the May 31, 1987 AmFAR dinner. Photo: Reagan Library

This is the joke that he started with, “A man had just been elected chairman of his community’s annual charity drive. And he went over all the records, and he noticed something about one individual in town, a very wealthy man. And so, he paid a call on him, introduced himself as to what he was doing, and he said, ‘Our records show that you have never contributed anything to our charity.’

And the man said, ‘Well, do your records show that I also have a brother who, as the result of a disabling accident, is permanently disabled and cannot provide for himself? Do your records show that I have an invalid mother and a widowed sister with several small children and no father to support them?’

And the chairman, a little abashed and embarrassed, said, ‘Well, no, our records don’t show that.’

The man said, ‘Well, I don’t give anything to them. Why should I give something to you?’”

Perhaps the callousness of that joke was exactly what he meant to say. The day after the speech activists were arrested in front of the White House. Among them was Larry Kramer one of the founders of Aids Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP).

Larry Kramer (in blue shirt left side) is arrested in front of the White House. Photo by Bill Wilson

Hope is a funny thing because sometimes it remains when there is no shred of reason for it. I really thought that the problem was one of education. If people only knew how urgent the crisis was they would do something. I underestimated the cultural warriors like Patrick Buchanan and Gary Bauer, who were ready to make me the issue. They had full reign under Reagan. To understand you only have to read the Aids chapter in C. Everett Koop’s book, KOOP:The Memoirs of America’s Family Doctor. Explaining how he hoped President Reagan might speak out against Aids as part of the Just Say No campaign against drug use, Dr Koop writes, “The “Just Say No” program was launched with much fanfare, but not a word about AIDS. One of my White House contacts told me after that Reagan had come to the staff meeting the next morning sold on my idea, but his advisors were simply not interested in the President’s doing anything about AIDS. All they cared about were the political gains they could make from having Reagan act against drugs. Aids was a grim and controversial subject, so they were not going to allow the President to get involved in it.”

Things didn’t really get any better under the first Bush presidency. When President Bush complained that ACT-UP seemed to have an “excess” of free speech I made a poster that stated, “I don’t have an excess of free speech, it’s just I speak for so many who can no longer speak for themselves.”

A protest sign states the statistics. Photo by Bill Wilson

President and Mrs. Bush did make a visit to Aids patients at the National Institutes of Health, but the visit got no press because there was no public notice before the visit happened. Mrs. Bush also helped the Whitman-Walker Clinic dedicate the Bill Austin Day Treatment and Care Center in 1991.

Whitman-Walker Clinic President Jim Graham welcomes First Lady Barbara Bush to the dedication of the Bill Austin Day Treatment and Care Center. Photo by Bill Wilson

While campaigning for the Presidency Bill Clinton told a predominately gay fundraiser in Los Angeles, “I have a vision for America and you are part of it.” Finally I thought there was someone who was listening. I was among the people who marched in the 1993 Presidential inauguration parade while carrying panels from the NAMES Project Aids Memorial Quilt.

The NAMES Project Aids Memorial Quilt contingent reaches the reviewing stand during the 1993 inauguration of Bill Clinton. Collection of Bill Wilson

However with the imposition of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” we quickly learned that our freedom was subject to compromise. President and Mrs. Clinton did become the first incumbent President to visit a display of the NAMES Project Quilt when it was unfolded on the Mall in 1996.

First Lady Hillary Clinton, NAMES Project founder, Cleve Jones and President Clinton October 11, 1996.

Under the second Bush administration the focus on Aids took on a more international view with the Presidents Emergency Plan For Aids Relief (PEPFAR), a commitment of $15 billion over five years (2003–2008) from United States President George W. Bush to fight the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. The program initially aimed to provide antiretroviral treatment (ART) to 2 million HIV-infected people in resource-limited settings, to prevent 7 million new infections, and to support care for 10 million people (the “2–7–10 goals”) by 2010. PEPFAR increased the number of Africans receiving ART from 50,000 at the start of the initiative in 2004 to at least 1.2 million in early 2008.

President George W. Bush signs H.R. 1298, the United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003, at the State Department in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, May 27, 2003. White House Photo by Eric Draper

Under President Obama the Office of National Aids Policy convened a series of regional discussions on a strategy for Aids prevention and care to come up with a national strategy for combating Aids and caring for those who have it.

President Obama discusses Aids policy with Jeff Crowley, Director of National office on Aids Policy. White House Photo

So from the beginning thirty years ago, when we fought to get attention to a disease no one wanted to mention and were alone in that fight, we’ve come to a point where Aids to perceived as a manageable disease. There is a whole new generation that needs to learn and understand what it was like.

See Related On Scene with Bill Wilson Archive

Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson is a San Francisco-based veteran photojournalist. Bill embraced photojournalism at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, SFist, SFAppeal. Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past seven years. Email Bill Wilson at wfwilson@sbcglobal.net.

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