I know that some see it as bad form to criticize the dead, but, in my view, it is also bad form to allow one's death to magically sweep away the misdeeds that one committed while living. With the death of former First Lady Nancy Reagan today at age 94, one is already seeing the magic erasure beginning that omits the woman's failings while over stating her accomplishments. As a former Republican, if I am honest, I never truly liked the woman. She always struck me as overly concerned with appearances - artificial, if you will - and her "Just Say No" program was always more PR than substance (I have children that suffered through the program which never addressed the underlying causes of why one would use drugs for an escape, and hence may be a bit peevish). Perhaps the most unforgivable thing to me, however, was he betrayal of her supposed friend Rock Hudson in his final days as he was dying of AIDS related complications. Her concern? Appearances, of course, not what was right or what a true friend would do. A piece from Buzzfeed last year looks at this ugly aspect of Mrs. Reagan which must not be lost in all the fluff pieces that are now forthcoming. Here are highlights:
Although only a handful of people knew it, Hudson was in Paris desperately seeking treatment for AIDS — treatment that even a prominent, wealthy actor could not get in the United States in 1985.
Although more than 5,500 people had died from the disease by the start of 1985, the government had taken few significant steps toward addressing the disease — with the Reagan administration recommending a $10 million cut in AIDS spending down to $86 million in its federal budget proposal released in February 1985.
And so, Hudson traveled to France, hoping to see Dr. Dominique Dormant, a French army doctor who had secretly treated him for AIDS the past fall. Dormant, though, was unable to get the actor transferred to the military hospital. Initially, the doctor wasn’t even able to get permission to see Hudson at the American Hospital.
Hudson’s longtime assistant, Mark Miller, flew to Paris immediately. There, he met with the French publicist, Yanou Collart. Over the following days, the pair, along with Hudson’s American publicist, Dale Olson, tried everything in a desperate attempt to get the dying actor moved to the military hospital for treatment.
These 10 days changed the course of history, as the world learned that Hudson was gay — and why he was dying.
“AIDS was on the front page of virtually every Sunday morning paper in the United States,” Randy Shilts wrote of the Sunday that followed Hudson’s collapse and revelations in his epic coverage of the epidemic, And the Band Played On. The revelations changed the course of AIDS coverage — and the broader attention paid to the disease. Hudson’s death a few months later, on Oct. 2, 1985, made him the first high-profile celebrity death from AIDS that was openly acknowledged as such.
The story was covered extensively at the time. By 1987, Shilts wrote that “[i]t was commonly accepted” that there were two phases of AIDS in the United States: “There was AIDS before Rock Hudson and AIDS after.”
One key part of this story, though, has never been told until now — not discussed at the time and lost in piles of paperwork from the Reagan administration. As Hudson lay deathly ill in the hospital, his publicist, Olson, sent a desperate telegram to the Reagan White House pleading for help with the transfer.
“Only one hospital in the world can offer necessary medical treatment to save life of Rock Hudson or at least alleviate his illness,” Olson wrote. Although the commanding officer had denied Hudson admission to the French military hospital initially, Olson wrote that they believed “a request from the White House … would change his mind.” First Lady Nancy Reagan turned down the request.
Hudson was a supporter of the president, attending a state dinner in May 1984, as he and Davidson wrote, seated at the first lady’s table. There, she asked him about his health. Shilts reported that Hudson told her he had caught a “flu bug” when filming in Israel. “I’m feeling fine now,” he said.
For Hudson, his longtime desire for secrecy about the fact that he was gay likely was only reinforced by the anti-gay sentiments that the advent of AIDS raised.
In a desperate telegram sent at 12:22 p.m. ET on July 24, 1985, Olson made his case directly to the White House in a message addressed to Mark Weinberg — a special assistant to the president and deputy press secretary in the White House.
“Doctor Dominique Dormant specialist treating Rock Hudson in Paris, reports only one hospital in the world can offer necessary medical treatment to save life of Rock Hudson or at least alleviate his illness. This hospital is Ministere du la Defence Centre d’Researches du Service de Sante des Armees Percy Hospital in the city of Clamart,” the telegram read, with Olson going on to give the phone number to the hospital.
“Commanding general of Percy Hospital has turned down Rock Hudson as a patient because he is not French. Doctor Dormant in Paris believes a request from the White House or a high American official would change his mind. Can you help by having someone call the commanding general’s office at the Percy Hospital at the above number,” the telegram stated.
After Weinberg received the telegram, he shortly thereafter spoke with the first lady. “I knew the Reagans knew Rock Hudson, obviously from their years in Hollywood, and for that reason I decided to call her,” Weinberg told BuzzFeed News in a recent interview about the 1985 request.
Would the White House intervene on Hudson’s behalf? That was what the publicist was asking for — help getting the actor, lying in the hospital in a dire condition, transferred from hospital to hospital.
Weinberg recommended to Nancy Reagan that the White House refer the matter to the U.S. Embassy in France, because, as he told BuzzFeed News, “This is probably not the [last] time we’re going to get a request like this and we want to be fair and not do anything that would appear to favor personal friends.”
Told of the communications and Weinberg’s explanation, Peter Staley — an early member of ACT UP and founder of the Treatment Action Group who was prominently featured in the Oscar-nominated AIDS documentary How to Survive a Plague — was incredulous.
“Seems strange that the Reagans used that excuse, since they often did favors for their Hollywood friends during their White House years,” Staley told BuzzFeed News, pointing out a time when President Reagan personally intervened to assist a fundraising effort led by Bob Hope, as detailed in a biography of the entertainer. “I’m sure if it had been Bob Hope in that hospital with some rare, incurable cancer, Air Force One would have been dispatched to help save him. There’s no getting around the fact that they left Rock Hudson out to dry. As soon as he had that frightening homosexual disease, he became as unwanted and ignored as the rest of us.”
The White House did not decide that AIDS would be an issue to “get into” until nearly two years after Hudson’s death.
The actor and friend of the Reagans — struggling to receive treatment in a foreign country — had been regarded, at least by the White House, just the same as everyone else with AIDS at the time.
Despite Hudson’s revelation and death in October, it wasn’t until the next year, and as the story of another person with AIDS — Ryan White, a hemophiliac who contracted AIDS through a blood treatment — entered the public spotlight, that the national policy movement began in earnest.
Even then, it took the administration’s own surgeon general, Dr. C. Everett Koop, issuing his groundbreaking Surgeon General’s Report on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome — without giving advance notice to the White House — and the Senate pressing for a presidential commission on AIDS for the White House to take steps toward action.
When President Reagan finally decided that he would not ignore the disease, he gave his first major public address on the issue on May 31, 1987 — at the request of another Hollywood star, and longtime friend of Hudson’s, Elizabeth Taylor.
When Koop drafted Reagan’s remarks for the dinner, he wrote, in part, “It’s also important that America not judge those who have the disease but care for them with dignity and kindness. Passing moral judgments is up to God; our part is to ease the suffering and to find a cure.”
Within the White House and throughout the administration, though, many conservatives vigorously disagreed with Koop’s report and recommendations. Regularly, those with anti-gay opinions ruled the day. For Carl Anderson — then a special assistant to Reagan who worked in the White House Office of Public Liaison and now the current supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus — such language was completely unacceptable.
In a two-sentence memo he sent to Mari Maseng, then the director of the Office of Public Liaison, on May 28, 1987, Anderson wrote bluntly, “Failure to make moral judgments on this behavior is why we have this epidemic. To my knowledge, the President has never said that we are to abandon moral judgment on these types of matters.”
The official, if unstated, White House position was that those with AIDS should not be rejected — but could still be judged. Final judgment comes from God, but Americans could pass moral judgments in the meantime.
“Drenched in animus, stigmatization, and an inexplicable nonchalance, the notes and memoranda provide a window into federal discrimination against a despised group, even in the midst of a raging epidemic,” Charles Francis, the president of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., told BuzzFeed News about the documents.
By the time Reagan spoke, Shilts reported, it was known that more than 36,000 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS — more than 20,000 of whom, including Rock Hudson, had died. Later data would show the numbers were significantly higher, with more than 41,000 dead by the end of 1987.
Perhaps I am overly sensitive when it comes to betrayal by supposed friends. When I came out some 14 years ago, I found out very painfully how few friends I actually had. Suddenly being gay made me radioactive and shunned. I still clearly remember being at a swim meet for one of my children's high school team and having three of my supposed friends and surf buddies walk by me as if I were invisible. I would also note that Carl Anderson who was noted in the article and who is now Supreme Knight of the Knight of Columbus has never ever condemned the Catholic Church hierarchy for the sex abuse scandal or demanded that the Church cease protecting and covering up for child rapists. It is the Reagans and their god fearing advisers who are the ones who were/are morally bankrupt. If there is a god, I suspect Nancy Reagan is now receiving judgment herself.