Ronald Reagan was sweeping the country and bringing in the first Republican Senate in nearly thirty years … With more than 120 cases (of Kaposi’s sarcoma or “gay plague”) now reported nationally and still no explanation for the patients’ strange immune deficiencies, it was increasingly clear to the clinicians gathered in Bethesda that an investigation into this outbreak could become a long haul, requiring substantial NCI (National Cancer Institute) grants … Not only had the administration not increased AIDS funding but the (1985) budget called for reducing AIDS spending from the current level of $96 million to $85.5 million in the next fiscal year. (CDC funds were affected by 20%.) … By the time President Reagan had delivered his first speech on the epidemic of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with the disease; 20,849 had died.” – And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts
It’s really simple.
If you want to make certain that health care in America is a priority for the people you don’t elect Republicans.
Just count the tombstones.
Count the urns.
Tally the indifference.
The latest foray of the Republican right into health care, which has recently produced “Medicare Modernization,” not only hands buckets of benefits to big business health care firms, but also leaves the middle in a mess.
It’s a Republican tradition.
Ronald Reagan had a strategy for domestic spending, back when Kaposi’s sarcoma was a secret, and that was to cut the Center for Disease Control’s budget from $327 million to $161 million right when the epidemic was exploding.
The CDC is the most important agency in America when the alarm of a public health emergency is sounded.
It was the CDC that came to the rescue when toxic shock syndrome and Legionnnaire’s disease surfaced in the 70′s.
The CDC gets involved when people start dying.
But it takes money to fund medical studies and prepare for public health crises, lots and lots of money.
And seldom are Republicans willing to put their political power where the public health is concerned.
Consider what has happened with the recent anthrax vaccine scandal in the military, which is making our soldiers sick, but on pain of court martial they are forced to comply.
Consider antidote serums for homeland security, which may be needed in case of a chemical attack.
All right-wing talk and no Republican action.
That’s a health care tradition for Republicans.
But back in the good old days of President Ronald Wilson Reagan, domestic budget cutting was the conservative credo. It went right along with “family values,” and having a strong national defense.
But if the Reagan administration was cutting the first line health defense of the CDC, he was also cutting the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) budget too, which had an even broader affect. Because it was the NCI that was supposed to do the heavy health lifting for the public good.
The problem in 1981 was that not even the NCI was interested in the “more than 120 cases now reported nationally.”
The “cases” had come about because of the gay 1970s, when homosexuals started enjoying their sexuality through the advent of bathhouses and gay sex clubs, which had exploded into a $100-million industry in North
But when Reagan became king, the NCI seemed uninterested in the “gay plague.”
Homosexuals were a forgotten minority long before K Street started pandering for health care conglomerates and using AIDS victims as cash cows. After all, there’s no money in the cure. It’s about the medicine, mister.
The Wall Street Journal didn’t want to cover the evolving epidemic until there was a “legitimate” angle, which translated to: it’s got to be a disease that attacks heterosexuals. Journal editors wouldn’t permit their science writers to cover stories about “gay diseases and gay sex.”
The upper crust of the financial set couldn’t be bothered with images of boy on boy body smacking, or worse, while they digested their daily dose of dividends.
“The Reagan budget men (1982) wanted to slice 1,000 grants from the National Institutes of Health and reduce positions on the Epidemiological Intelligence Service. The $5 million increase in the CDC budget barely covered inflation and gave the agency no new funds to deal with the new epidemic.” – “And the Band Played On,” by Randy Shilts
It didn’t seem to matter that the new epidemic was a disease that “afflicts members of one of the nation’s most stigmatized and discriminated against minorities,” which, coming from Representative Henry Waxman, was something he knew a lot about. West Hollywood just happens to be Waxman’s district, which was ground zero for GRID (Gay-related Immune Deficiency).
Just one year earlier an anonymous man named Bobbi Campbell became the first Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) patient to go public.
Not long after that I would find myself in Los Angeles, California making new friends, one of whom became one of the first gay men to traverse the public health climate with KS. I’ve written about him before.
The first time he walked into a government facility they emptied the room, only to return in full gay plague battle gear, complete with robes, masks and the appropriate distance needed to deal with a gay man
suspected of carrying the plague.
Several years later, one of my dearest friends became infected, setting off rage in my soul.
In between, a dear friend died of the disease.
I was long gone from New York City when “Angels in America” opened on Broadway.
But I was working on the Great White Way when the disease quietly claimed a man who many of us believed was the most gifted director/choreography since Bob Fosse.
His name was Michael Bennett, though at the time of his death the disease was only a rumor of his demise, for fear it would forever ruin his reputation, as if anything could possibly dim the brilliance of this dynamo.
So, it was with great anticipation I awaited HBO’s participation in what has become known as one of the greatest feats in theatrical history.
“Angels in America” on HBO simply wipes you out.
It is six hours of unadulterated political and philosophical power, a tour de force dismantling one of the most paranoid times for the people of America.
It is the history of governmental genocide directed at a minority of males.
It is also as democratic a presentation as can be done when gays, sex and religion meet the reality of rotted Republican policies.
Tony Kushner, the genius writer and creator of “Angels in America,” daringly depicts the duplicitous reality of a certain Republican, Roy Cohn, and his gay aid, who is a Mormon, while gently guiding the anti-conservative reality of the gay community that was part of 1980s America. While also offering a point of humanist communion that unites all people of his play, regardless of politics.
It is a miracle of angels.
Subtly weaving in the Republican reality of the Reagans, you learn that below the governmental genocide there were people living quietly the undignified lives of disease and despair in one of the most desperate
times for a minority in American history, second only to slavery.
If a dying gay man with AIDS is unknown, does he still suffer?
It’s much bigger news when the victim is a star.
On Rock Hudson the gay plague turned.
“Ronald Reagan grinned boyishly and started his first address on AIDS … In the next twenty minutes, the president laid out his views on AIDS. There was little talk of education and a lot of talk about testing. There was no mention, however, of confidentiality guarantees or civil rights protection for those who tested positive. Reagan’s program, of course, would do very little to actually stop the spread of AIDS … But then saving lives had never been a priority of the Reagan administration. Reagan’s speech was not meant to serve the public health; it was a political solution to a political problem. The words created a stance that was politically comfortable for the president and his adherents; it was also a stance that killed people. Already, some said that Ronald Reagan would be remembered in history books for one thing beyond all else: He was the man who had let AIDS rage through America, the leader of the government that when challenged to action had placed politics above the health of the American people.” – “And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts
Next year, health costs will soar some 14%, while millions of Americans remain uninsured.
Children across America are among the most vulnerable and also the most affected.
The United Nations estimates that 42 million people are affected with AIDS worldwide.
Half of the new infections in America are among blacks.
Half of the new infections in America are women.
AIDS has left 13 million children orphaned around the world.
“Angels in America” comes at a time when a Republican President promises to raise the funding for AIDS around the world by millions of dollars.
But the reality is that President Bush has not funded his presidential promises.
The drama that plays out during this Christmas season on HBO is a reminder of what Republicans do when handed over the public health concerns of the American people.
They make very public political promises, but do absolutely nothing with policy.
And when they’re not doin’ nuttin’, they turn their attention to doing damage, by promoting abstinence without full reproductive health education, allowing religious corporations to under cover health care
for females, while offering civilian women health care rights to which American military women aren’t entitled.
We do have angels in America that try to make up the difference.
But little can be done when the enemy is as strong as the Republican devils who reside in D.C.
This post has been edited from its original version.