“And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, 20th-Anniversary Edition.” By Randy Shilts, November 2007, Kindle edition, $13.49, 660 pages, St. Martin’s Griffin, revised edition.
After reading “And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic,” one can’t help thinking if, in the early 1980s, if hundreds then thousands of heterosexual men suffered excruciating deaths due to an unknown illness, that basic American principles such as “liberty and justice for all” would have applied much sooner.
Investigative journalist Randy Shilts’ work is not light reading yet it is difficult to put down. Shilts, an openly gay man who in 1994 succumbed to the very disease he so passionately researched, poignantly places blood on the hands of every involved party, including the gay community.
A combination of homophobia among medical leaders in the Reagan administration and the unwillingness of gay leaders to end the “free love” party so characteristic of the 1970s ignited to sicken and kill millions of people, including grandmothers and babies given blood transfusions.
Shilts indicts the government several times for its callous lack of response in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. In 1976, a mysterious disease killed 29 American Legion members attending a Philadelphia convention. The government spent about $35,000 per Legionnaire’s Disease death. By appalling contrast, the government spent only about $9,000 per AIDS death in 1982.
Reagan, who met with Religious Right leaders such as Jerry Falwell when perhaps he should have been meeting with San Francisco gay leaders such as Cleve Jones, did not acknowledge publicly the epidemic until 1987. A few words from the most powerful man in the world, who lost close friend and famous actor Rock Hudson to AIDS in 1985, possibly could have saved thousands of lives.
In the end, the blame for a disease that now impacts millions from all walks of life cannot be assigned to one person or interest group. Public health leaders and gay activists failed miserably in an era of public service announcements and special television appearances by leaders such as Reagan.