By the time President Reagan got around to publicly acknowledging the existence of AIDS in 1985, something like 5,000 Americans had already died from the syndrome. But thanks to the badgering of Glenn Beck progenitor Lester Kinsolving, Reagan’s appointed mouthpiece Larry Speakes had to address the epidemic as it was first unfolding.
For his new documentary short, When AIDS Was Funny, Scott Calonico dug up some old, previously unpublicized recordings of Speakes and Kinsolving going back and forth in the White House press room and giggling about man cooties. Kinsolving does not exactly come off as what you would today call an ally—at one point, he tries to lead Speakes into an official pronouncement against cruising, which he presumably learned all about from the Al Pacino S&M murder mystery that came out a few years earlier—but at least he was pressing the administration to respond in some way. Speakes, on the other hand, alternates between disinterest and utter contempt. The rest of the press corps seem to love it.
Speakes had a mean reputation in his day. And yes, times have certainly changed, on AIDS, and an array of related issues. But even 30 years later, it’s hard to listen to him laugh at the idea of people dying of “gay plague” and not conclude that his spite was a perfect reflection of U.S. government policy toward one of the most devastating diseases of the 20th century.