Now that nurse Amber Vinson has been cleared of Ebola, our Ebola “epidemic” is down to one person in the United States. But if you turn on right wing media, you’d think that the land was awash in people dying of this virus and we should all hover inside, deeply afraid. Republican politicians have gotten in on it, too, cynically seeing a way to make this somehow about Obama in an effort to push Republicans over the top in the midterms. While there have been some conservatives—including Rick Perry!—who are trying to calm everyone the fuck down, the general message coming from the right on Ebola is to be afraid, to be very, very afraid.
I thought it would be interesting, in light of this, to look at how Republicans reacted in the 1980s to an actual epidemic that was actually killing people by the thousands: AIDS. If ever there was a time to freak out and say that we have to do something to stop this epidemic, it’s when there was actually, you know, an epidemic. And yet.
Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
MR. SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don’t.
MR. SPEAKES: You didn’t answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President—
MR. SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)
White House Press Briefing — June 13, 1983
Q: Larry, does the President think that it might help if he suggested that the gays cut down on their “cruising”? (Laughter.) What? I didn’t hear your answer, Larry.
MR. SPEAKES: I just was acknowledging your interest—
Q: You were acknowledging but—
MR. SPEAKES: —interest in this subject.
Q: —you don’t think that it would help if the gays cut down on their cruising—it would help AIDS?
MR. SPEAKES: We are researching it. If we come up with any research that sheds some light on whether gays should cruise or not cruise, we’ll make it available to you. (Laughter.)
Q: Back to fairy tales.
July 4th, 1986
Bob Hope joke: “I just heard the Statue of Liberty has AIDS. Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Fairy.” (Reagan reportedly laughed at that one.)
May 31, 1987
The first time Reagan acknowledges AIDS publicly. At this point, over 9,000 people had died of the disease.
May 26, 1988
The Surgeon General finally acts, mailing out a brochure explaining what the disease is and how you can get it. By the end of that year, nearly 14,000 people had died.
Helms believed gays were “weak, morally sick wretches” and argued that “there is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy”—motivating factors behind his push to block funding for research into HIV at a time when the epidemic was killing tens of thousands of people in the United States alone. He described AIDS education as “so obscene, so revolting, I may throw up.”
Something to keep in mind when Republicans freak out about the non-epidemic of Ebola in our country.