For those of us who lived through the screaming silence of the Reagans during the AIDS crisis, especially so if you are gay, “Washington Post” columnist Karen Tumulty’s “Triumph of Nancy Reagan” (Simon & Schuster, 2021) seems to come from a parallel bubble universe. In this world Nancy is humanized as an empathetic product of old Hollywood, surrounded by her close gay friends like New York high-society eccentric Jerry Zipkin; her dress designer Jimmy Galanos; her decorator Ted Graber; her hairdresser Robin Weir; her “walker” fundraiser Robert Higdon and Ron Reagan, Jr. “in a battle that pitted them” against Ronald Reagan’s hard right advisors the likes of Ed Meese, Gary Bauer and Carl Anderson. In this bubble of empathy and courage, Nancy did not turn her back on her “dear friend” Rock Hudson’s pleas for her help from his deathbed. Oh no, “it is possible to appreciate,” Tumulty writes, “that Nancy had been put in a situation where she had no good options.” No good options for Hudson’s “dear friend” who could have lifted a finger for him— and us all? She did not. Karen Tumulty couches Nancy’s betrayal of Rock Hudson with chilling formality: “was that kind of intercession on behalf of her friends a proper role for a First Lady?”; “There’s not enough paint in the world to whitewash Nancy’s response to AIDS,” writes one of our most thoughtful friends, an activist survivor of these dark days.
Here is the telegram with Hudson’s plea for help. We discovered it and other associated materials at the Reagan Presidential Library. It was found in a file labeled “Hospitals.” Had it been marked “Rock Hudson” we surmise it would have “gone missing” a long time ago.
In her book Karen Tumulty waves us off. “In later years, AIDS activists and Reagan critics would say that the first lady was callous in how she handled it (Hudson’s plea for help).” Callous? Try cruel. She was utterly indifferent both to Rock Hudson and the public health crisis itself. Were it not for a final plea to her from the heroic Elizabeth Taylor on behalf of amfAR (then the American Foundation for AIDS Research) with another hero Dr. Mathilde Krim, we all would have received the Rock Hudson treatment.
Mainstream, oft-quoted historians love the “Triumph of Nancy Reagan.” Michael Beschloss begins his blurb, “The wonderful Karen Tumulty…” Doris Kearns Goodwin loads it on, “In this riveting and beautifully written portrait…” We disagree. It would have elevated this otherwise original and contrarian biography to have at least been unflinching about Nancy Reagan and AIDS. And spare us any serious reference to Jerry Zipkin.
For the benefit of those who were not alive during the Reagan years or those who have worked hard to forget what happened inside the Reagan White House during the AIDS epidemic, here is a sampler of coverage and commentary on Nancy Reagan’s time in power when she could have done some good—but turned us all down.
Special thanks and kudos to Chris Geidner, then Legal Editor of “BuzzFeed News,” for his understanding, reporting and breaking the Nancy Reagan/Rock Hudson story.