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The White House—and the reporters who cover it—thought AIDS was a joke in 1982

White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes Answers Questions Following Attempt On Reagan's Life
Getty Images/Peneloppe Bresse
Larry Speakes, speaking for the president.
  • Zachary M. Seward
By Zachary M. Seward

Editor-in-chief of Quartz

United StatesPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

We just came across a remarkable transcript from 1982 in which the US president’s press secretary was asked about AIDS. “What’s AIDS?” responded Larry Speakes, the press secretary for Ronald Reagan. The ensuing conversation between him and the White House press corps, which we confirmed with multiple sources, includes an astonishing amount of laughter and ignorance.

Of course, October 15, 1982, when the exchange occurred, was still very early in the AIDS epidemic. The US Centers for Disease Control had declared it a disease only a month earlier. The lack of awareness among Speakes and the reporters was representative of much of America. Still, it took far too long for the US government to address the crisis even after it was killing thousands of people a year. President Reagan didn’t make his first public remarks about AIDS until May 1987.

Here’s the transcript:

Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
Q: 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?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don’t.
MR. SPEAKES: You didn’t answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President—
MR. SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)
Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
Q: Does the President, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any—
Q: Nobody knows?
MR. SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.
Q: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping—
MR. SPEAKES: I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he’s had no—(laughter)—no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.
Q: The President doesn’t have gay plague, is that what you’re saying or what?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I didn’t say that.
Q: Didn’t say that?
MR. SPEAKES: I thought I heard you on the State Department over there. Why didn’t you stay there? (Laughter.)
Q: Because I love you, Larry, that’s why. (Laughter.)
MR. SPEAKES: Oh, I see. Just don’t put it in those terms, Lester. (Laughter.)
Q: Oh, I retract that.
MR. SPEAKES: I hope so.
Q: It’s too late.

By the way, the reporter “Lester” with whom Speakes was talking is apparently Lester Kingsolving, a longtime conservative gadfly of the White House briefing room. Given Kingsolving’s reputation as an anti-gay bigot, the exchange is all the more astonishing.

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