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.