“Reagan Dies.” I opened the web browser on my computer early last Saturday afternoon and there it was. I couldn’t help but smile.
Finally, I thought, the “great communicator” was taking over the airwaves once again, but this time for good. Yet even in death, Reagan perfectly stage managed the timing, as if we needed more of his kind of propaganda with all the D-Day commemorations, re-enactments, and celebrations on FOX, MSNBC and CNN. It was as if this were his ultimate coup de grâce, clearing from the headlines in one last breath the ongoing coverage of all the atrocities committed in Iraq by the son of his chosen successor.
Then the “elite media”—as Joe Scarborough likes to call it—began a parade of packaged “remembrances,” showing the star of “Bedtime for Bonzo” and his wife, the leading lady of “Donovan’s Brain,” in lovelier, happier times. The problem is that during certain lovelier, happier times, countless of my friends and my friends’ friends were dying horrible deaths, thanks to a disease that Mr. Reagan couldn’t even mention for years into his presidency.
Many of us, I hope, are still around to remember the desperate measures we took to make Washington listen—the bus trips to the Capitol, the die-ins, the political funerals, the siege of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta, the ashes thrown over the White House fence, the enormous protest at Grand Central Terminal, and many, many others.
Yes, the Ronald Reagan who pushed us into direct action is the same Ronald Reagan the whole country now seems to be mourning. The same one who had the power to stop AIDS dead in its tracks, but instead chose to do nothing. The same man who made famous the phrase “I can’t recall” during the Iran-Contra scandal. The same man whose actions culminated in his successor’s invasion of Panama. The same man whose policies empowered our most recent and most hated enemies, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
Do I have any feelings about his passing? Of course.
I recognize how it took a long, long time for it to happen. Mr. Reagan ended his years suffering the same way the people he killed with his inaction suffered. He probably woke up many mornings lying in a pool of his own excrement and urine. His caretaker, Nancy Reagan, had to give up the glamorous life of an ex-first lady to confront a horrible, debilitating disease right in the face. To me, it was all one magnificent, historic case of poetic justice.
In the final stages of his life, Mrs. Reagan pressed Pres. George W. Bush to expand the scope of stem cell research. How different the picture becomes when the one who is dying is a loved one, and you can’t do one damned thing about it.
While the media eats up each obituary and tribute served up by the dinosaurs who served him in the White House, I have only seen one casual mention, in Newsweek, about Reagan’s attitude toward the AIDS epidemic, saying he “seemed uncaring about the emerging HIV/AIDS crisis.”
The television media reporting has been astoundingly one-sided, complete with over-sentimentalized music soundtracks, absolutely zero debate about Reagan’s so-called legacy, and the now-and-forever famous shot of Mrs. Reagan laying her head on her husband’s casket. I guess that, for the right wing at least, that will be the equivalent of little John John’s salute captured by the cameras at JFK’s funeral.
The saddest reality of this week has been the overwhelming negation of the AIDS crisis as it really happened: engulfing first this country’s most despised minorities—gays, drug users, and people of color, and then spreading desolation and hopelessness around the globe.
Who, if anybody else, is more responsible for biggest, deadliest, costliest public health disaster of the 20th century than Ronald Reagan?
Now, for many, AIDS is an industry. We love to think it’s a manageable disease although deep down we know it’s not. But I don’t want to think that we have forgotten our holocaust. Now is the time to revisit the writings of Larry Kramer, movies like “And the Band Played On,” videos of ACT UP demonstrations, documentaries such as “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt” and “Tongues Untied.”
Do not forget to whom this happened, why it happened, and who let it happen.
And let’s not shed a single tear for Mr. Reagan. He’s the last person on this earth to deserve it. And even if we wanted to extend him that courtesy, we have no more tears left to shed.
Juan M. Mendez is a Puerto Rican journalist living in New York who previously wrote for El Diario, the New York Daily News, the San Francisco Examiner, Latina magazine, and Univision.com.