13 Times The Reagan White House Press Briefing Erupted With Laughter Over AIDS

In Jon Cohen’s 2001 book, Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine, he detailed the Reagan administration’s early indifference to the growing epidemic. White House acting press secretary Larry Speakes, and some of the reporters at press briefings, found the crisis to be quite the joking matter.

White House acting press secretary Larry Speakes, in the foreground, as President Reagan consults with advisers. Pete Souza / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

White House Press Briefing — Oct. 15, 1982


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?
MR. SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
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.

White House Press Briefing — June 13, 1983


Q: Larry, does the President think that it might help if he suggested that the gays cut down on their “cruising”? (Laughter.) What? I didn’t hear your answer, Larry.
MR. SPEAKES: I just was acknowledging your interest—
Q: You were acknowledging but—
MR. SPEAKES: —interest in this subject.
Q: —you don’t think that it would help if the gays cut down on their cruising—it would help AIDS?
MR. SPEAKES: We are researching it. If we come up with any research that sheds some light on whether gays should cruise or not cruise, we’ll make it available to you. (Laughter.)
Q: Back to fairy tales.

Acting press secretary Larry Speakes at the podium as President Reagan makes an appearance in the White House Press Briefing Room. reagan.utexas.edu

White House Press Briefing — Dec. 11, 1984


MR. SPEAKES: Lester’s beginning to circle now. He’s moving in front. (Laughter.) Go ahead.
Q: Since the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta—(laughter)—reports—
MR. SPEAKES: This is going to be an AIDS question.
Q: —that an estimated—
MR. SPEAKES: You were close.
Q: Well, look, could I ask the question, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: You were close.
Q: An estimated 300,000 people have been exposed to AIDS, which can be transmitted through saliva. Will the President, as Commander-in-Chief, take steps to protect Armed Forces food and medical services from AIDS patients or those who run the risk of spreading AIDS in the same manner that they forbid typhoid fever people from being involved in the health or food services?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t know.
Q: Could you—Is the President concerned about this subject, Larry—
MR. SPEAKES: I haven’t heard him express—
Q: —that seems to have evoked so much jocular—
MR. SPEAKES:—concern.
Q: —reaction here? I—you know—
Q: It isn’t only the jocks, Lester.
Q: Has he sworn off water faucets—
Q: No, but, I mean, is he going to do anything, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: Lester, I have not heard him express anything on it. Sorry.
Q: You mean he has no—expressed no opinion about this epidemic?
MR. SPEAKES: No, but I must confess I haven’t asked him about it. (Laughter.)
Q: Would you ask him Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: Have you been checked? (Laughter.)

(Hat tip to Ann Friedman for raising the issue on Twitter.)

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