When the Great Communicator Turned Silent: Ronald Reagan and AIDS

President Ronald ReaganAt no time during this Ronald Reagan centennial month will we hear the name Roy Kessler associated with former president’s legacy, but perhaps we should.

If anyone epitomized the ebullient and entrepreneurial spirit that President Reagan celebrated, it was Roy, a high tech pioneer who founded a mapping and geography software company in Arizona and built it into a smart and successful business.

Roy was like many software innovators in the 1980s, flush with a mission to change the world through computer technology. In those days of big floppy disks and clunky desktop computers, Roy evangelized about the new compact disc technology. He would talk endlessly about all the data he could put on a CD and the many ways that computers could harness ever-increasing amounts of knowledge. It was a new interactive world he was helping to create, and he saw nothing but boundless opportunities.

At first blush, Roy was exactly the type of American that President Reagan would have honored at one of his State of the Union addresses. One could imagine a Reaganesque encomium tucked into the President’s speech as the television cameras panned to Roy in the House gallery sitting with the First Lady. It would be a presidential homily about hard work and the American Dream, about the way Roy risked all his money on a vision of the future, how a business that started out in Roy’s kitchen became a symbol of the President’s morning in America.

But no matter how much Roy epitomized the American spirit, President Reagan never would have acknowledged him. Roy was openly gay, and less than three years after Ronald Reagan left the White House, Roy died of AIDS.

Those who praise President Reagan today speak of his moral courage and passion. But when it came to AIDS, his silence was deafening and his inaction disheartening.

Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the same year that scientists identified AIDS. Except for answering a question about AIDS at a 1985 news conference, it wasn’t until May 1987 that he took the initiative and spoke publicly about the disease. Six years of silence from the Great Communicator.

During that time, almost 30,000 Americans had died from AIDS and thousands more had contracted the disease. By the end of the Reagan presidency, more Americans had died of AIDS than lost their lives during the entire Vietnam War. According to the San Francisco Examiner, for two years in the mid-1980s the AIDS budget for San Francisco exceeded President Reagan’s AIDS budget request for the entire nation.

We all can draw our own conclusions as to why President Reagan and his administration pretty much ignored a deadly epidemic that at the time seemed to be afflicting only gay men in the United States.

But we do know this: had Ronald Reagan applied the same sense of urgency to AIDS that he did to tax cuts and the Soviet threat, scientists would have had more resources to fight this epidemic and very possibly could have spared hundreds of thousands of American lives and millions worldwide.

And who knows, Roy Kessler, my best friend from high school, might still be alive and smiling and causing all sorts of digital mischief, fulfilling his mission to revolutionize our world with his knowledge, technology, and ideas. PunditWire Initials

Leonard SteinhornA former speechwriter and strategist for causes, candidates, and members of Congress, Leonard Steinhorn has written on American politics and culture for major newspapers and magazines, and is currently the director of the Public Communications department at American University.

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