A version of this post appeared at Truthout.
Hillary Clinton recently credited late First Lady Nancy Reagan, as well as her husband President Ronald Reagan, with starting “a national conversation” about HIV and AIDS. She was quickly rebuked for these comments, and her staff issued an apology. The reality is that Nancy and Ronald Reagan were silent about the HIV/AIDS crisis going on around them and treated it as a joke. The result is that the Reagans are complicit in the deaths of tens of thousands of people.
While Clinton did probably think that the Reagans were leaders on HIV/AIDS advocacy, she instead said that she intended to talk about the Reagans’ commitment to stem cell and Alzheimer’s disease research. But this also deserves scrutiny. Neither Nancy Reagan nor her husband started a “national conversation” on either Alzheimer’s disease or stem cells by any charitable interpretation. Alzheimer’s disease was reasonably well-known when Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with it in 1994; supporting stem cell research was a mainstream Democratic Party plank when Nancy Reagan spoke favorably of it in 2004.
The Reagans did become interested in both issues after Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s though, and there is an important and obvious point to make about this advocacy: the Reagans’ personal experience with Alzheimer’s disease catalyzed it. Ungenerously, an argument could be made that it was directly in their interest to fund research to find a cure for the disease; generously, one could argue that their experience made them believe that the disease merited more attention than they had previously assigned to it.
It is a common phenomenon for politicians to change their views, or change what they devote their attention to, when something affects them personally. In 2013, Republican Senator Rob Portman came out in favor of same-sex marriage in large part because he learned that his son is gay. Portman plainly said:
“[k]nowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love…”
Portman’s evolution was widely praised. Separately, former Senator Alan Simpson in 2013 chastised his male colleagues for their positions on abortion by saying they “shouldn’t even vote on [any abortion-related issue],” ostensibly because men can never personally experience an abortion directly.
The examples of the Reagans, Portman, and Simpson should give pause (as should the countless others, including that of former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, who came out in support of same-sex marriage because his daughter is a lesbian). Politicians are expected to represent different groups of people and understand and empathize with many people’s needs and struggles. Yet in the context of these issues, the Reagans and Portman needed to be personally affected before they understood what other people might experience.
Portman’s evolution is laudable as a personal revelation but it represents a fundamental failure as a legislator. There was nothing stopping him from imagining what it would be like to have a gay son to understand why gay Ohioans want to marry. Likewise, it should not have taken a personal struggle for the Reagans to understand that Alzheimer’s was worthy of their support. In Simpson’s case, he should clearly see that is also the job of male legislators to protect and uphold reproductive rights.
In short, it is the job of all politicians everywhere to care and advocate for issues that don’t directly affect them, and these examples represent a failure to do that.
In death, both Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the other leading Democratic presidential candidate, praised Nancy Reagan’s life and her advocacy on stem cells and Alzheimer’s research. While this sort of polite revisionism is expected among politicians and elites, it legitimizes unhelpful ways of thinking and lazy advocacy. Since most people were not close to Reagan, their assessments of her should be confined to her life as a public figure. This criticism is appropriate and healthy, and should include a fair assessment of, for example, her advocacy, her record on HIV/AIDS, and how she spent her time as First Lady. (Her time as First Lady was unremarkable; she worked on a failed anti-drug program and uncritically fulfilled traditional gender roles as part of her husband’s reactionary administration.)
It was an exceedingly easy decision for the Reagans to support these causes, and it required very little political or social capital. If the Reagans had decided to support these causes based on their own merits — just like if Portman had supported same-sex marriage because he thought it was the right thing to do — it would have served as an example to others and honored the many people who suffer from the underfunding and de-prioritization of medical research, or in Portman’s case, discrimination based on their sexual orientation. Instead, personal experiences are used as cover to avoid the worst political or social ramifications of these decisions, which were largely made to keep personal lives consistent with public lives.
Since a strategy for social change can’t be predicated on getting more politicians to have gay children or be close to someone with a terrible disease, those who do seek change should see these examples as cautionary. When powerful people make politically difficult decisions that, depending on the issue, represent the will of their constituents or something that they know is right, those decisions are more likely to be transformative.
There is not much evidence that Clinton understands this. She chose to support same-sex marriage only when it was politically easy — around when Portman reversed his position — and at a time when many were rightly reevaluating the goals of the movement from the Left. The rhetoric and positions of her presidential campaign are also disturbing from this angle. Clinton appeals to struggles when convenient, but does not recognize that she is on the opposite side of analogous movements. For example, she co-opts the legacy of Rosa Parks and the idea of intersectionality, but wants to work with Republicans to destroy the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which fights a similar battle as Parks’. She decries the potential for “violence in politics” as activists are assassinated in Honduras by forces she chose to embolden. She pays lip service to Black Lives Matter though in the past she promised to bring “superpredators” “to heel.”
Creating meaningful change will always be difficult. The Reagans and Clinton are not people we can learn from.