‘He Did Not Lead on AIDS’: For Bush, Activists See a Mixed Legacy
Posted December 3, 2018 7:53 p.m. EST
The death of George H.W. Bush on the eve of World AIDS Day was a painful reminder for some of the most lethal days of the epidemic, when people — predominantly gay and bisexual — were struck down by an illness that few in the White House seemed to lose sleep over.
For them, the 41st president was a slow-moving leader whose response to the crisis was hard to separate from his public uneasiness with gay men and lesbians.
“If one was being charitable one could say it was a mixed legacy, but in truth it was a bad legacy of leadership,” said Urvashi Vaid, who led the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force from 1989 to 1992. “He did not lead on AIDS.”
Bush, who died Friday at 94, took two significant steps to address the epidemic, which had killed roughly 59,000 Americans by the end of 1989: He signed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which forbid discrimination against people living with the disease, and the Ryan White Care Act, which remains the largest federally funded program for HIV/AIDS patients.
Both did more to address the crisis than anything done by Bush’s predecessor, Ronald Reagan, who was criticized for not using the word AIDS in public until 1987, years after the epidemic had begun.
Hilary Rosen, who lobbied for the Human Rights Campaign during the Bush administration, said those initiatives marked a “turn around” in AIDS policy. But she said the president “didn’t do nearly enough.”
“I know this week it feels like we’re the skunk at the ‘Celebrate George Bush’ party, but this was our reality: We were kids and our friends were dying and the government was ignoring it because they were gay,” she said. “He just didn’t lead at a time when we were desperate for leaders.”
Critics said Bush did not do enough to provide funding for AIDS research and treatment. He was also critical of policy proposals, like a federally funded needle exchange, that activists believed could help slow the spread of the virus.
By the end of his term, HIV infection was the leading cause of death for men in the United States from ages 25 to 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“When you talk to AIDS activists of that era and LGBT activists, we experienced his leadership as actively hostile and not friendly," Vaid said. “I don’t know that Ronald Reagan would have signed those bills, though, so that is something.”
Bush described his approach to the epidemic as one shaped by compassion, but he often appeared to be uncomfortable when addressing the issue.
Jennifer Brier, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said Bush’s claim to compassion was largely rhetorical.
She pointed to less-than-compassionate Bush policies like a provision that forbade the use of federal money for “the promotion of homosexuality,” such as safe-sex pamphlets that mentioned gay sex.
She also pointed to the resignation of Magic Johnson, the HIV-positive basketball star, from the National Commission on AIDS in 1992. Johnson said the president “dropped the ball” on AIDS and “utterly ignored” the commission’s recommendations on issues like sex education and needle exchange.
“He had a love-the-sinner, hate-the-sin attitude, and that was considered progress at the time by some, although not in the gay movement," Vaid said of Bush. She described his approach as “a basic avoidance of the LGBT community.”
But he did mention the community sometimes, especially with the approach of the 1992 presidential election, when he faced a primary challenge from the conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan.
In 1991, Bush counseled “behavioral change” as a way to fight HIV and described AIDS as “a disease where you can control its spread by your own personal behavior.” Many gay activists took it as a slight that blamed them for the public health crisis.
In one interview in 1992, he said he opposed the idea of same-sex couples raising children. In another, he said if his grandchild came out as gay he would “love that child” but also tell them that they were not “normal.”
“I would put my arm around him and I would hope he wouldn’t go out and try to convince people that this was the normal lifestyle, that this was appropriate lifestyle, that this was the way it ought it be," Bush said. “I would say, ‘I hope you wouldn’t become an advocate for a lifestyle that in my view is not normal.'”
Bush lost his bid for re-election in 1992. In the years since, expensive new treatments for HIV/AIDS have turned the virus into a manageable long-term illness for many people. But poverty and poor access to health care has kept those drugs out of reach for millions both in the United States and around the world.
And the virus continues to spread. There were almost 40,000 new diagnoses in 2016, 70 percent of which occurred among gay and bisexual men and 44 percent of which occurred among African-Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It said more than 1.1 million Americans currently live with HIV.
Social acceptance of LGBT people in America has grown in ways that seemed almost unthinkable during the Bush administration, and the attitudes of many have softened.
Bush appeared to have been among them.
In 2013, he served as the witness for the wedding of Bonnie Clement and Helen Thorgalsen, two longtime friends in Maine. Afterward, he sent a note to his biographer, Jon Meacham, explaining how his thoughts on same-sex marriage had changed over time.
“Personally, I still believe in traditional marriage," Bush wrote. “But people should be able to do what they want to do, without discrimination. People have a right to be happy. I guess you could say I have mellowed.”