WikiLeaks: Hillary Clinton’s Positive Statement About the Reagans Enraged LGBT Activists

President Reagan sits with actress Elizabeth Taylor during her American Foundation for AIDS Research dinner in Washington on May 31, 1987.
AP Photo/Dennis Cook

The release of emails from the account of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, courtesy of WikiLeaks, reveals how the Clinton campaign was under pressure from LGBT activists to walk back her statement that Ronald and Nancy Reagan are credited with launching a “national conversation” about HIV and AIDS.

Clinton, who attended Nancy Reagan’s funeral with her husband on March 11, praised President Ronald Reagan’s wife for initiating discussion about HIV/AIDS in the country. Clinton told MSNBC:

It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was to talk about HIV [and] AIDS back in the 1980s. Because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular Mrs. Reagan, we started a national conversation where before nobody would talk about it. Nobody wanted anything to do with it.

“It penetrated the public conscience,” Clinton added. “People began to say, ‘Hey, we have to do something about this, too.’”

An email thread, marked with four exclamation points (!!!!) and dated the next day – March 12 – shows Clinton campaign staffers Lauren Peterson, Megan Rooney, Nick Merrill, Maya Harris, and Xochitl Hinojosa scrambling to produce a statement for Clinton in which she would walk back her praise of the Reagans.

“Here is a revised draft of a statement,” writes Rooney. “It does include the words ‘I made a mistake’ in the first line.”

“We need a strategy for getting her to approve this,” she continues. “I don’t know if that means someone who is traveling with her (Maya?) making the case… or something else.”

A draft statement read:

Yesterday, at Nancy Reagan’s funeral, I made a mistake in speaking about the Reagans’ record on HIV and AIDS. Since then, I’ve heard from countless people who were devastated by the loss of friends and loved ones, and hurt and disappointed by what I said, and I understand why. My comment was just wrong.

I want to use this opportunity to talk not only about where we’ve come from but where we must go in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

To be clear, the Reagans did not start a national conversation about HIV and AIDS. Unfortunately, the opposite was true. That distinction belongs to generations of brave men and women who started not just a conversation but a movement that continues to this day.

Hinojosa wrote:

Flagging that there was a whole segment on MSNBC where someone with HIV/AIDS said that HRC’s apology wasn’t enough. Buzzfeed is also writing a follow up piece on whether our supporters and activists were satisfied. While I pointed them to folks who can be helpful, I’m sure they’ll find supporters who aren’t satisfied. LGBT media is also hearing from angry people.

“I think we really should do everything we can to get this up today, if at all possible (fingers crossed),” wrote Peterson. “Does not seem to be dying down online, either.”

The staff then revised Clinton’s statement to say:

Yesterday, at Nancy Reagan’s funeral, I said something inaccurate when speaking about the Reagans’ record on HIV and AIDS. Since then, I’ve heard from countless people who were devastated by the loss of friends and loved ones, and hurt and disappointed by what I said, and I understand why. I made a mistake, plain and simple.

Los Angeles LGBT newspaper The Pride reports about Clinton’s gaffe and the rage it produced among LGBT activist groups.

Richard Socarides, a gay New York-based Democratic activist and Clinton supporter, emailed senior campaign officials to warn them the candidate should address the issue “before this spins out of control.”

“Nancy Reagan in fact helped start a national conversation about HIV and AIDS but as we all know it was far too little and way too late,” Socarides wrote. “When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992 it was on a platform that was highly critical of the Republican response to the HIV crisis. It had been a record of neglect. As first lady and as senator and as Secretary of State Hillary has been a champion for increased funding and raising awareness.”

Echoing Socarides’ comments in a subsequent email was Steve Elemendorf, a gay Democratic lobbyist, who said he “cannot overstate how big a problem” the remarks were and called for immediate action from the campaign.

Kristina Schake, a deputy communications director for the Clinton campaign, wrote in another email that Clinton ally and Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin was receiving complaints about Clinton’s remarks and his response, which condemned the remarks but didn’t reference the candidate herself.

“I stayed with Chad last night who was receiving lots of angry calls and notes from people that he didn’t call her out by name,” Schake wrote. “He wouldn’t do that to her and kept stressing she just made a mistake, but suggested we need to do something more today to protect her. She has a great record and we lost a lot of ground messaging-wise.”

The Pride suggests LGBT activists still have questions about why Clinton would offer praise of the Reagans.

“Even though Clinton twice apologized for the remarks and recommitted herself to fight HIV/AIDS in the aftermath, it remains unclear why she made the remarks in the first place,” the report says. “Some have speculated she confused Nancy Reagan’s work on Alzheimer’s disease with HIV/AIDS; others claims the remarks were an effort to curry favor with Reagan Democrats.”