As much as I may think his politics were heart-stoppingly, woefully, pathetically simplistic and wrong, I can't claim to actually be happy that Ronald Reagan is dead. He was, in the end, a human, and one suffering a fate no one should have to suffer.
But I'm terrified that the American populace--media and citizens alike--will continue to fall prey to the strains of revisionist history we've seen a bit of over the past 36 hours. Yes, Reagan may have brought a renewed sense of optimism to a country reeling from inflation, unemployment, and general malaise in the early 80s. And yes, he may have had a spectacular and unfailing sense of humor.
But how can those things make up for the fact that he slashed government spending so deeply and severely that unemployment rose, the poor got much poorer, and those who had not previously been poor found themselves thus? How can they make up for the sickening scandal of Iran contra, full of lies? And how can they make up for Reagan's staunch refusal to acknowledge the scourge of AIDS until the epidemic had swelled and exploded?
In the film version of "And the Band Played On," titles appear sporadically with a running tally of the AIDS cases diagnosed, and the number of victims already dead, while the US government did almost nothing to intervene. In Randy Shilts' book, he devotes an entire chapter of the Epilogue to May 31, 1987, the day of the first speech Reagan gave on the AIDS epidemic.
Shilts writes, "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."
Reagan had refused to acknowledge AIDS because he (along with many others at the time) viewed it as a disease that affected only gay men. In the President's estimation, gay men's lives weren't worth the federal funding it would take to research AIDS and its treatment. Of course, well before 1987, the disease had spread to other populations (including thousands who contracted it through blood transfusions, rather than any sort of risky behavior), so it wasn't only gays who suffered from Reagan's intolerance and disregard.
In the rush to lionize Ronald Reagan as an American hero, we must not forget that he was complicit in the deaths of over 20,000 people in his own country while he was in office. His own suffering, and our sympathy towards it, should not blind us to the fact that his bigotry contributed to the continued suffering of tens of thousands of others. He had the chance again and again to show the American people that he could rise above the forces of homophobia, misinformation, and hatred masked as morality; again and again, he failed to take that chance.
We have the chance now to remember Reagan not only as he was in his final years--frail, quiet, lost in a disease no one deserves--or in his Hollywood years, but also as he truly was in his White House years. We also have the chance to remember the thousands of other lives--more prosaic, perhaps, but no less valuable--lost to complications from AIDS while, throughout the 1980s, and with Reagan wielding the baton, the band played on.