Critics Of President George H.W. Bush Reflect On His Handling Of The AIDS Crisis

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Originally published on December 5, 2018 9:14 am
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As Americans honor the legacy of President George H.W. Bush, NPR is hearing many views about a man who spent so many decades in public life. As well as admirers, Bush had his critics. And among his critics are those who point to his inaction on AIDS. Bush was president when AIDS and HIV had become a national crisis, and he found himself at odds with AIDS and HIV activists.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) History will recall George Bush did nothing at all.

CHANG: Urvashi Vaid was a vocal critic at the time. She was head of what was then known as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. She joins us now. Welcome.

URVASHI VAID: Thank you. Hello.

CHANG: What was President Bush's response to the AIDS crisis? How do you remember it?

VAID: The Bush presidency on HIV, AIDS, was mixed at best and marked by calculated indifference at worst. You have to separate the individual and what his loss means to his loved ones from what his legacy is as a political leader. He did not use his voice or office as president or, for that matter, as vice president, to address what was happening to tens of thousands of Americans, the majority of whom were young people, the vast majority of whom were gay and bisexual men and a significant number of whom were people of color. He just did not use his voice and power.

CHANG: But President Bush did sign the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which protected people with HIV. There was also the Ryan White CARE Act, which is the largest federally funded program for HIV and AIDS patients. Doesn't President Bush deserve credit for that?

VAID: He absolutely deserves credit for signing those bills, but he does not deserve credit for the existence of those bills. Let's be clear. Each of those bills came about because of AIDS activist pressure, because of congressional leadership and not because of White House leadership. He submitted appropriations bills each year on HIV that were in adequate and had to be increased by pressure brought on Congress. He opposed needle exchange programs that could have saved thousands of lives. So there are many instances in which President Bush did break from the Reagan years and could have signaled and acted upon the kinder and gentler conservatism that he promised at his inauguration. But, you know, there were many other instances in which he did not do enough.

CHANG: Do you think the trajectory of the epidemic would have unfolded differently had President Bush taken different actions?

VAID: Yes, of course, it would have. I mean, 180,000 people died, and we heard our president say nothing. It's unconscionable. You cannot imagine sitting today, in 2018, what pervasive silence there was or when somebody said something that was a public official, they said a hostile or negative, condemning thing. And President Bush himself said some unfortunate things about people with AIDS, about gay people.

CHANG: Was there a particular comment that stands out in memory?

VAID: Talking about the innocent victims, as if there were innocent and guilty victims. Focusing on behavior which made some people feel stigmatized.

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GEORGE BUSH: And I once called on somebody, well, change your behavior. If the behavior you're using, prone to cause AIDS, change the behavior. Next thing I know, one of these act-up groups is out saying, Bush ought to change his behavior. You can't...

VAID: The fact is that we were doing our best and hardest work in our community to build social services, to fight discrimination. People were being rejected at hospitals. People were being turned away from mortuaries. We were dealing with that while dealing with loss. So I think what could have been done was done because of the activism. And more could have been done had the White House not been, frankly, bad on issues affecting LGBT people because they had bias.

CHANG: Urvashi Vaid is the president of The Vaid Group, a social innovation firm. When George H.W. Bush was president, she led what was then known as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Thank you very much.

VAID: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.