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By 1982, AIDS deaths in America had reached 853. At a press conference at the White House with President Ronald Reagan that October, a journalist named Lester Kinsolving raised his hand to ask Reagan's Press Secretary, Larry Speakes, about the epidemic—and whether or not the President had made a statement about it.
"I don't know a thing about it," said Press Secretary Speakes. The reporter noted that one in three people who have contracted AIDS have died from what had been called "the gay plague"—and the press pool, in turn, erupted into laughter.
"I don't have it," said Speakes, as the crowd laughed. "Do you?"
The next year, the death toll from AIDS would nearly triple. Kinsolving would continue to ask the same question in press conferences over the course of the next three years—to the same mocking and laughter. (At one point, Speakes called out his "abiding interest" in "fairies.")
The recordings from these press conferences are the centerpiece of a new short film by Scott Calonico, When AIDS Was Funny (which you can watch here). Calonico, who formerly worked at the State Archives in Austin, Texas, applied his historical research background for the documentary-style film, which incorporates the unearthed recordings, memos, and transcripts.
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"Mother Jones did a fantastic story last year about the conferences and the transcripts," Calonico told me. But while the story about the press conference was out there, as well as chronicled in the book Shots in the Dark, the audiotapes had yet to be uncovered. Intrigued, Calonico started digging.
"Because I've done so much research with presidential libraries, I started wondering if there was any videotape coverage. So I consulted the Reagan library and started speaking to the archivists there. It turns out there wasn't any video footage—but there was audio… and a lot of it."
"They were referring to this epidemic as 'the gay plague.'" — Scott Calonico
Calonico found that each press conference stretched on for about an hour, led by Press Secretary Speakes, whose career would eventually be scandalized by admitting he fabricated quotes attributed to President Reagan. Each was a fairly standard White House daily briefing, where the press secretary would clarify the President's statements and positions, outline the traveling schedule, and so on.
To obtain this never-heard-before audio from the Reagan library, Calonico simply filled out a standard form and paid for the copy. "I knew I was onto something when the archivist told me that he had to digitize the tapes for me—which means nobody had requested them in a while."
The result was chilling. It's eerie enough to read the transcripts, but to actually hear the recordings is infuriating.
"As the newspaper clipping in the film shows, one of the ways [the press] were referring to this epidemic was 'the gay plague,'" says Calonico.
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Kinsolving, the reporter in the tapes, had been a long-time White House fixture. His career began at the San Francisco Examiner, where he was one of the first writers critical of Jim Jones and The People's Temple, years before the mass suicide in the jungles of Guyana.
"By the time he got to the White House pool, Lester had moved to writing for local magazines. His daughter told me that during the time frame covered in the film, he was making something like $200 a month," said Calonico. "For most of the other people in the press pool, he was considered something of a crackpot. However, in this case, he was eerily prescient."
It wasn't until 1985, when over 5,000 people had died from AIDS, that Reagan first mentioned AIDS in public. The Reagan administration—which had until then been more or less indifferent to AIDS—called the epidemic a "top priority," according to a report in the New York Times.
"This is where it kind of gets complicated," said Calonico. "It's easy to paint Reagan as the bad guy, but in real life he did speak out in support of non-traditional lifestyles." Calonico mentioned that, in 1978, while Reagan was still Governor of California, he spoke out against Proposition 6, which would've prevented gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools.
"So I don't know if it was Reagan who didn't want to make a statement or his people who thought it might damage his reputation," said Calonico, adding: "I think it's pretty telling that his first statement about AIDS comes in 1985—when he's safely back in office for a second term."
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