At a town hall last night, Hillary Clinton said: “I watch my husband campaign, and it is just poetry …. That’s not necessarily my forte.” She got that right.
Worse yet, her campaign prose is sometimes so twisted that it ties her in knots. And we just saw a classic example this weekend, when she twice felt compelled to apologize for her needless verbal screwup about the Reagans.
In the grand scheme of things — the grandest of all is an autumn clash with the GOP’s authoritarian demagogue — the Reagan episode is small. But it reminds us (as if we needed reminding) that Clinton is a flawed communicator who has a gift for getting herself in trouble. Given the stakes this year, she can ill afford to do that.
This one was a beaut. On Friday, while attending the funeral of First Lady Nancy Reagan, she essentially told NBC News that Ronald and Nancy were enlightened pioneers on the issue of AIDS:
“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. And because both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular Mrs. Reagan, we started a national conversation, when before no one would talk about it, no one wanted to do anything about it, and that too is something that I really appreciate, with her very effective low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience and people began to say, ‘Hey, we have to do something about this, too.'”
Well. It just so happens that many of us do remember the 1980s. And what we accurately remember is that the Reagans were infamously AWOL on AIDS.
Ronald Reagan didn’t say a word about AIDS until he answered a press conference question on Sept. 17, 1985; by that point, early in his second term, roughly 12,000 Americans had already died. He didn’t give a speech about AIDS until May 31, 1987; by that point, roughly 25,000 had died.
As for Nancy, in 1985 she reportedly declined to help her AIDS-stricken friend, Rock Hudson. The actor’s friends wanted the White House to pull strings for Rock, to help him get into a specialized Paris hospital. But according to an administration memo, “she did not feel this was something the White House should get into” -— even though the Reagans were usually receptive to helping their old friends in Hollywood. But they saw AIDS as a no-no. Indeed, the president tried in 1985 to cut the federal government’s minimal AIDS spending by $10 million.
Toward the tail end of Ronald’s reign, Nancy did lobby behind the scenes to boost the AIDS money — but historian Allida Black notes that the Reagans had little compassion for the victims of the disease. As she pointed out in a 2011 PBS documentary, “They never would’ve waited (that) long if it was redheaded sixth graders.”
So. Why did Clinton offer a history lesson that was fundamentally at war with reality? Maybe she was badly briefed (if so, fire the briefer). Maybe she was tired (no excuse). Maybe she just wanted to say something nice about the deceased (better to say nice things that are true). We’ll never know why she said it. What we do know is that she needlessly ticked off people who want to support her.
Gay activist Dan Savage’s response was typical: “She risks losing the votes of millions of [gay] Americans who survived the plague …. There are no words for the pain Clinton’s remarks have dredged up.” Other gay leaders described her remarks as “polarizing, inaccurate, offensive” and “out of touch with reality.” And in the broader liberal community, the reaction was the same. Joe Conason, a journalist and commentator who’s generally sympathetic to Clinton, wrote on Facebook that her remarks were “awful — historically inaccurate, emotionally offensive, and politically damaging.”
To mitigate the damage, Clinton has twice apologized. On Friday night she tweeted: “I misspoke about their record on HIV and AIDS. For that I’m sorry.”
Hillary Clinton’s statement on her comments about the Reagans' record on HIV and AIDS: pic.twitter.com/RtIs0zpJfk
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) March 11, 2016
On Saturday night she elaborated:
“I said something inaccurate when speaking about the Reagans’ record on HIV and AIDS. Since then, I’ve heard from countless people who were devastated by the loss of friends and loved ones, and hurt and disappointed by what I said. As someone who has also lost friends and loved ones to AIDS, I understand why. I made a mistake, plain and simple.”
At least she stopped digging. She then took the opportunity to climb out of the hole and tout her own long record of advocacy on AIDS. Under the circumstances, it was her best option — and perhaps it will prompt her liberal critics to see the big picture, to recognize the high stakes in ’16, to confront the dire threat of Trumpism, to put her flaws in proper perspective.
One such critic, progressive blogger Spandan Chakrabarti, has already done so: “I know better than to judge the character of someone by single, isolated actions, let alone by a single, isolated sentence …. This is a single sentence in a single interview that Hillary Clinton has taken back. Get over it. Get on with life. We have progress to protect. We have our country’s future at stake.”
Speaking of perspective, behold this weekend eruption from the Mt. Vesuvius of Verbal Vomit:
Trump tweeted on Saturday that the protester who tried to climb onto his stage “has ties to ISIS. Should be in jail!”
USSS did an excellent job stopping the maniac running to the stage. He has ties to ISIS. Should be in jail! https://t.co/tkzbHg7wyD?ssr=true
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 12, 2016
And yesterday, on “Meet the Press,” Trump said that the protester “had Internet chatter with ISIS and about ISIS.”
But when Trump was firmly informed — umpteen times — that, no, the protester was not tied to ISIS, and that, in fact, Trump had based his remarks on a YouTube hoax, his response was a post-fact classic: “Now, I don’t know. What do I know about it? All I know is what’s on the Internet.”
There it was, Article I Section I of the U.S. Trumpstitution. Its colloquial translation goes like this: “I affix my lips to the sewer pipe and guzzle whatever comes out.”
Perspective indeed. At least Hillary Clinton took responsibility for her error.