reagan administration aids documentary
A still from the short film "When AIDS Was Funny" by Scott Calonico.

Today is World AIDS Day and Vanity Fair is marking it by releasing an exclusive documentary short film called “When AIDS Was Funny.”

The film, written and directed by Scott Calonico, comes in at just under eight minutes and uses never-before-heard audio from three separate press conferences, one in 1982, one in 1983 and another from 1984, showing how the Reagan Administration was slow to act on the AIDS epidemic. Worse still, Reagan Press Secretary Larry Speakes laughed off the issue and made homophobic jokes repeatedly throughout the years when asked about the issue by reporter Lester Kinsolving.

Kinsolving, a conservative who has spoken out against gay rights throughout the years, is heard being laughed at by both Speakes and the other members of the press whenever he brings up the AIDS crisis.

Kinsolving first asks Speakes about AIDS on Oct. 15, 1982 and he confirms that the Reagan Administration did not, as far as he was aware, know anything about the epidemic. When Kinsolving mentions that it is being called “gay plague,” by way of trying to jog Speakes’ memory, it seems, it elicits laughter.

“I don’t have it,” Speakes says. “Do you?”

Kinsolving says that he does not.

“How do you know?” Speakes asks.

Later Speakes sarcastically says that he checked with the Physician to the President, Dr. Ruge, and that he has had no patients that suffer from AIDS.”

The next bit of audio comes from June 13, 1983. By this point, there had been over 2,000 AIDS related deaths in the United States.

When a reporter asks about an environmental issue, mentioning that a leading environmentalist called the President’s speech a “fairy tale,” Speakes, in the midst of dodging the question, says, “Lester’s ears perked up when you said ‘fairies.’ He has an abiding interest in that.”

Speakes then says that the President was briefed about AIDS in a cabinet meeting and “ordered that high priority be given to research matters on it.”

“We have recently asked that $12 million be reprogrammed for research on AIDS,” Speakes adds.

In 1984, Kinsolving asks a question based on the erroneous belief that HIV/AIDS could be spread through saliva.

“Is this going to be an AIDS question?” Speakes asks while laughing.

Kinsolving asks if President Reagan is concerned about the epidemic.

“I haven’t heard him express concern,” Speakes says, adding, “I haven’t heard him express anything (about HIV/AIDS),” but that he admits to not having asked him about it, either.

When Kinsolving requests that he ask President Reagan, Speakes ignores it and asks Kinsolving if he has been checked, and says of his work, “I don’t get paid enough.”

Speakes, later disgraced for attributing quotes to President Reagan which were in fact crafted by Speakes’ aides, died in 2014. Kinsolving is still alive and working as a reporter.

President Reagan did not publicly speak about AIDS until a press conference in 1985. By then, well over 5,000 people had died from AIDS related illnesses.


Jeff Taylor / Social Media Editor

Jeff Taylor is a journalist and artist. In addition to QNotes, his work has appeared in publications such The Charlotte Observer, Creative Loafing Charlotte, Inside Lacrosse, and McSweeney’s Internet...