A new short film released on Vanity Fair’s website titled “When AIDS Was Funny” chronicles the Reagan administration and the press’ immediate response to the AIDS crisis when it was first unearthed in the early 1980s. The initial response? Jokes and laughter.
Ronald Reagan’s presidency among many in the GOP is the be–all and end–all of all presidencies.
But filmmaker Scott Calonico’s new documentary short, When AIDS Was Funny, exclusively debuting on Vanity Fair’s website, may chip away at his legacy.
It profiles the Reagan’s administration’s initial response to the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s. As VF.com’s Richard Lawson points out, President Reagan didn’t publicly mention AIDS until 1985. At that time, over 5,000 people had died from the disease. To put that number in perspective, AIDS had claimed over 2,000 more victims than 9/11 at that time.
Newly unearthed tapes by Calonico however show the shocking initial reaction from both the press as well as Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes: all reportedly seem to take the epidemic in stride, cushioning the reveal with jokes and laughter.
Certainly, not a great deal was known about the disease at the time. Still, the clip below clearly highlights how far we’ve come -- and how far we still have to go. The audio clip highlights reporter Lester Kinsolving, which Vanity Fair's Lawson dubs as a “conservative (and not at all gay-friendly” journalist in the White House press corps, asking the first public question on the crisis to Reagan press secretary Speakes. Most in the room seem to dismiss his line of questioning as a joke. When Kinsolving states, “it’s known as gay plague,” some in the press pool laugh in response. Then, when Kinsolving continues: “Does anyone in the White House know about it?” Speakes dismisses him: “There’s been no personal experience here, Lester.”
You can listen to the clip, and other similar exchanges, at VF.com.
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