One of the most prominent stains on the reputation of the much-mythologized Reagan administration was its response, or lack of response, to the AIDS crisis as it began to ravage American cities from Harlem to Hollywood in the early and mid-1980s. On Tuesday, December 1st, 2015, director Scott Calonico unveiled “When AIDS Was Funny” on Vanity Fair’s website, which coincides with World AIDS Day. The nearly 8-minute film features previously unreleased audio of former Reagan press secretary Larry Speakes scoffing at, and making light of, persistent questions in a span of three years (1982-1984) on the disease’s outbreak from reporter Lester Kinsolving. The audiotape, which includes reporters openly laughing at the notion of a “gay plague,” puts the administration’s lack of response in perspective.
Using never-before-heard audio tapes from three separate press conferences, in 1982, 1983, and 1984, When AIDS Was Funny illustrates how the reporter Lester Kinsolving, a conservative (and not at all gay-friendly) fixture in the White House press corps, was consistently scoffed at when he posed urgent questions about the AIDS epidemic. With snickering, homophobic jokes and a disturbing air of uninterest, Speakes dismisses Kinsolving’s concerns about the escalating problem. “Lester was known as somewhat of a kook and a crank (many people still feel the same way),” says Calonico. “But, at the time, he was just a journalist asking questions only to be mocked by both the White House and his peers.”
What Calonico has compiled, juxtaposing the deeply troubling audio with images of AIDS patients at Seattle’s Bailey-Boushay House in the 1990s, is an infuriating summation of the Reagan administration’s fatal inaction in confronting a generation-defining tragedy.