As our country grapples with the leadership style of President Donald Trump, whose unfiltered comments and loud, abrasive manner leave many to view him as dangerous, it is important to acknowledge that it is easy to fall into the trap of honing in on his mistakes, since he is the sitting president, and he is loud and brazen when articulating his controversial views.
Our country has witnessed many different leaders: those who were forced to choose how and when to strong-arm other nations (former President Franklin D. Roosevelt), others who adopted a laissez-faire approach to economic decisions (former President Herbert Hoover) and still those who inherited social crises that their predecessor did not properly address (former President George H. W. Bush).
When we consider presidents of the past, it is also important to keep in mind that Trump is not the first one to make a controversial judgment call. As someone who has great difficulty accepting Trump’s policies, actions and leadership, I feel that it is crucial to not glorify past presidents in an effort to magnify Trump’s shortcomings. In doing so, we risk succumbing to social amnesia.
Yes, his propensity for voicing his rhetoric in a loud manner is dangerous, but it only takes superficial research — or recollection if you are old enough — to identify that a silent president is as troubling, if not more dangerous.
The 100,000 AIDS cases that were reported, yet barely acknowledged, by July 1989 speak to that sentiment.
Historians, politicians and the general public largely admire former President Ronald Reagan for his numerous strides made during his two terms in office. He is recognized for his “contribution to the level of world peace” and his commitment to the War on Drugs, to name just two. However, there seems to be little to no discussion about the fact that he was president “for nearly five years before he said the word ‘AIDS’ in public.”
Perhaps even worse, it took Reagan seven years before he gave a speech on the health crisis that claimed the lives of a tremendous amount of individuals.
If when Trump leaves office he is greatly admired despite his role as the modern-day ostracizer of minority groups, he will follow in the footsteps of Reagan who blazed the trail with his refusal to address the AIDS epidemic in a timely fashion. It is important to accentuate the positives of any president’s time in office.
These highlights must be acknowledged, but not in lieu of all that was mishandled or ignored.
It is also foolish to disregard those with whom our leaders surround themselves. For Reagan, archival audio of press secretary Larry Speakes and journalist Lester Kinsolving was released in Scott Calonico’s 2015 short documentary, “When AIDS Was Funny.” The documentary includes numerous excerpts from press conferences throughout the 80’s, but the following excerpt is from a conference held in 1982:
KINSOLVING: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement — the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that A-I-D-S is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
SPEAKES: What’s A-I-D-S?
KINSOLVING: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
KINSOLVING: No, I don’t.
People will argue and say that the 80’s were “different times” and that people “didn’t know what we know today”, but there is no disguising the hate and disgust in Speakes’ voice. Additionally, it is impossible to deny that the press room as a whole was a disgraceful instance of homophobia not only exhibited, but also embraced.
Nonetheless, despite the lack of awareness or care regarding the Reagan Administration’s ability to properly respond to the AIDS epidemic, there are still many in the LGBTQ community who rightfully condemn Reagan and those around him for his silence and longstanding lack of acknowledgment. There are also those who go as far to say that Reagan in some capacity assisted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of people.
I cannot say that I disagree.
Murder comes down to premeditation. While it may be next-to-impossible to prove that the Reagan Administration was unaware of the AIDS epidemic initially, there is no justification in waiting more than five years to acknowledge the crisis, especially once the CDC made the statistics public.
Moreover, given that the epidemic not only claimed the lives, but also stigmatized gay men, it simply adds another layer, especially when listening to the audio and recognizing that neither Speakes, nor Kinsolving were treating the community who was largely exposed to the disease with any compassion or human decency.
It is unlikely that Trump’s leadership style will change. All the same, many of us will continue to complain about the way that Trump speaks and behaves until our words echo in our ears alongside his own.
The truth of the matter is, a silent president can be even deadlier.