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interview: landon parvin

[photo of Landon Parvin]

A speechwriter for President and Mrs. Reagan, Parvin wrote the president's first major speech on AIDS, which Reagan delivered in May 1987 at an amfAR dinner in Washington D.C. Here, he describes how Elizabeth Taylor, the actress and amfAR's founding national chairman, wrote a letter asking the president to attend and how Mrs. Reagan requested Parvin write the speech. "She thought that the first time the president really spoke about this that it should be something more moderate than perhaps would come out of the White House itself," he says. Parvin also recounts the internal White House battles over what exactly the president should say, and he tells FRONTLINE that before he started working on the speech, the president and then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop had never spoken about AIDS before. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 10, 2006.

... Did [Nancy Reagan] ever speak with you about AIDS?

No. How I got brought into the AIDS speech [was], I'd left the White House, but I was still a consultant to both the president and Mrs. Reagan. Mrs. Reagan was concerned, I think, about how the AIDS speech might go if it was left in the White House, so she asked me if I would come back and help on that speech.

We never really discussed the policy of it. I knew why she was asking me to come back to do it -- because there had been great tension in the administration which way it should go on various AIDS policies. I said to her at one point, "I may need your help," and she said, "Well, if you do, come see me." ... She didn't want the speech to be taken off to the far right, and she thought that the first time the president really spoke about this that it should be something that was more moderate than perhaps what would come out of the White House itself.

What would have come out of the White House?

I think it would have been more mandatory testing. Actually, in talking to the White House staff, there were three things that they were concerned about. They had three goals: The first goal was to find a cure; the second goal was to be compassionate; and the third goal was to make sure that the focus was on protecting those Americans who did not have the disease. It was in that third goal where there was often disagreement, how to go about that.

What were the [disagreements]?

Well, back then a lot was still uncertain, and it wasn't clear. We didn't have as much scientific evidence as we have right now. I remember after I did a first draft, there was a lot of back-and-forth on how can you get AIDS? How do you protect yourself? Can you get it by going to the swimming pool or [from] mosquitoes? I had in there you couldn't get it from mosquitoes, and someone had said, "Well, that hasn't been proven." There was a lot of uncertainty back then, and the speech was a way of sorting through all that.

The speech often is a means to compel action, and that's what happened here, because Elizabeth Taylor had invited the Reagans to come to the amfAR [American Foundation for AIDS Research] dinner and invited the president to give a speech, and that forced policy decisions.

How important was it that the invitation came from Elizabeth Taylor?

... I think the deciding factor in the president going to give the speech was a letter that Elizabeth Taylor wrote inviting him and Mrs. Reagan to come. She says, "I am writing from my heart to ask if you both would attend the dinner, and if you, Mr. President, would give the keynote speech." ... It's really a personal request, and she says at the end: "P.S. My love to you, Nancy. I hope to see you both soon. E." So it was her personal appeal that got the president there. ... Going through the normal White House channels, I don't think it would have happened at that point. ...

So the first you heard of the whole thing was the administration calling you?

Well, every once in a while, Mrs. Reagan would call me to do something for the president. We had done a speech a few months before then for the Iran-Contra episode, and so Mrs. Reagan knew she could talk to me. We had a rapport, and we understood each other. She called me and asked me to do it, and of course I was happy to do it. I went down to the White House and started having meetings with the president and the staff, and that's how that came down.

What did the president say when you met with him?

The president wanted to make sure that the people knew what the government was doing. He said, "We need a common-sense approach." He didn't really go off on either extreme.

He told an interesting story that I think is really where his heart was on the issue. I can't remember if he said that he said this to his daughter or whether someone had written him a letter saying this to a daughter, but he said: "If you have a daughter who you're maybe starting to worry about a bit, you could say to her, 'Someday you're going to fall in love with a man, and you'll want to spend the rest of your life with him, and you'll marry him, and you'll want to be true to him. You can start being true right now.'"

Now, that's old-fashioned; it's quaint. It's almost something romantic from another era. But I think it explains a lot about why the president perhaps took a while to understand the AIDS issue. He was from another era. He could always be moved by compassionate stories or by stories of hardship. I don't think the issue even really was on his horizon until Rock Hudson died.

It's a very moving story about "You can start being true right now." [How do you then write a speech about AIDS for him to deliver?]

I think he was from another era, and to my knowledge, I don't remember him ever saying the word "condom" in a speech. That was just not him. "Abstinence" was actually a word that we didn't use in the AIDS speech, because if I had put in the speech the story that I just told you about abstinence, the media would have made fun of him. The audience wouldn't have [accepted] them except in a negative way. But there were forces in the administration wanting him to talk about abstinence; there were other forces wanting him to talk about condoms. So we threaded the needle and didn't talk about either.

Who was on [the various sides]?

Well, on one side was certainly [Surgeon] General [C. Everett] Koop, and he's the one I basically took my lead from, because he's the doctor. On the political side there were White House staff members like Ken Cribb and Gary Bauer and also Secretary [of Education William] Bennett, who took the more conservative view. So there was the tension between Surgeon General Koop and others in the administration. ...

The first time I talked to Surgeon General Koop, he told me that he hadn't met with the president on the issue of AIDS, so I got to thinking, well, how can the president go give a speech on AIDS and not even have talked to his surgeon general about it? So I called Mrs. Reagan, and I said, "I think this could be an embarrassment, and that the surgeon general and the president should meet." There was a larger meeting on the AIDS issue that Koop was invited to, and the president heard various viewpoints. ...

There were quite a few people there, and there was a variety of viewpoints. You could tell different wings [were] trying to make their points with the president. Surgeon General Koop was outnumbered, I would say, but the president listened to it all, and I think it was an important thing for him to hear.

Can you remember any specific things or viewpoints that were expressed?

There was a lot of concern that we really didn't know how bad the problem was. One of the reasons some people were pushing for testing was because we just didn't know how bad it was. I can remember Koop telling me privately, he said, "We don't know whether we're on the edge of an explosion or whether education can take care of this."

There was just uncertainty: How bad is it? That was part of the push for testing, and yet others felt, including the surgeon general, that mandatory testing would backfire and we'd learn even less because people would go underground.

At that meeting, did they talk about [how] we don't know how it's transmitted? What was the view on that aspect?

Well, in that meeting, I don't recall any questions about the major ways it was transmitted. There was concern that the first priority of the government should be to protect those who were not infected with the disease, and the question is, how do you go about that? That's where the disagreement, of course, occurs. ...

One of the things that the surgeon general wanted the president to do was to clarify some of the fears or to dismiss some of the fears, that you can't get it from drinking fountains or you can't get it from swimming pools or any number of things. Koop felt that if the president said such things that that in itself would reassure people.

Now, when I got down to actually putting that on paper, there was a battle over how far I could go. As I say, I always took my lead from the surgeon general, and he was much more specific about how you could not catch it than others on the White House staff wanted the president to be. I can remember I had in there that you couldn't catch it from food preparation, and someone wrote back a note: "This is not certain. There could be secondary diseases that the AIDS person has, such as tuberculosis or whatever, that could be contracted." ...

I remember one note on one of the drafts I got back saying: "The Public Health Service has consistently backed off its positions. You cannot go this far. The president's role is to protect the American people."

There was ignorance, and it was a different time then. I remember not more than a couple years before that, my wife and I had a friend who died of AIDS. We didn't know it at the time, and we wanted to go see him in the hospital, and his partner wouldn't let us go see him. We didn't know till years later that he had died of AIDS. It was an era back then where things weren't as clear as they are now, and that was reflected in what was going on in the White House.

How long was it from when Nancy Reagan called you to [when the speech was delivered]?

... I spent a couple weeks talking to people. I talked to Dr. Koop; I talked to White House people; I talked to the president; I talked to Dr. [Merv] Silverman of amfAR; I talked to public health people.

[What was your conversation with Dr. Silverman?]

His major thrust of what the president should do would be, he wanted to make sure that the president dispelled a lot of the fears and showed compassion. He didn't want testing mentioned. He said they should not be referred to as victims or the exposed but as people with AIDS. He gave me a lot of guidance on what to avoid, what I should say, what I should not say. He was very helpful. As I say, I was talking to him and Dr. Koop on one side and then the White House staff on the other.

And Mrs. Reagan, was she part of any of those conversations?

No. There was one point that I was getting a lot of stuff taken out, and I can't remember the exact issue now, but there was one thing that I thought had to be in there, and I went to her and said, "I need your help on this one," so the next time I went to a meeting on the speech and it was this section, when it was tried to be taken out, I could say, "Mrs. Reagan wants it in." That's what I needed.

So that was your secret trump card?

I only had to use it really once, but it worked once.

[Read part of the speech.]

"We must prevent the persecution through ignorance or malice of our fellow citizens. As deadly and dangerous as the AIDS disease is, many of the fears surrounding it are unfounded. These fears are based on ignorance. I was told of a newspaper photo of a baby in a hospital with a sign that said: 'AIDS: Do Not Touch.' Fortunately, that photo was taken several years ago, and we now know there's no basis for this kind of fear. But similar incidents are still happening in this country. I read of one man who returned to find anonymous notes on his desk with such messages as, "Don't use our water fountain." I was told of a situation in Florida where three brothers, aged 10, 9 and 7, were all hemophiliacs carrying the AIDS virus. The pastor asked the entire family not to come back to their church. Ladies and gentlemen, this is old-fashioned fear, and it has no place in the home of the brave."

Really, that's the power of what a president can do, is the bully pulpit. And that was Reagan's strong suit.

So you sat there when he read that and [heard the] applause, and what did you think?

I was relieved to hear applause, because there had been so much expectation about the speech. There were reports that people were going to get up and walk out. There were reports that people would boo, which they did. It was a tense evening. It really was, and I was relieved when it was over, and Elizabeth Taylor was very gracious afterwards. The president had received some boos, and she kind of smoothed things over and everything. The president left on a good note.

The part where people booed was, I think, around immigration. ... How did that section come about?

One of the things the president wanted was to treat AIDS as any other contagious disease would be treated. He told me that several times: That's what we should do -- it's a contagious disease; it should be treated as such. We, at the time, would keep immigrants out of this country if they had contagious diseases. The president was just going to add AIDS to that list of contagious diseases. He got booed for that. Interesting that The Washington Post said his proposals were sensible, and The New York Times, I believe, didn't have any problem with the immigrant and AIDS issue. But there were activists in the audience that night, and they booed.

I think the great bully pulpit section is … the section about casual contact. Will you read that section?

"The Public Health Service has stated that there is no medical reason for barring a person with the virus from any routine school or work activity. There is no reason for a person carrying the virus to wear a scarlet A. AIDS is not a casually contagious disease. We are still learning about how AIDS is transmitted, but experts tell us you don't get it from telephones or swimming pools or drinking fountains. You don't get it from shaking hands or sitting on a bus or anywhere else, for that matter. And most importantly, you don't get AIDS by donating blood. Education is critical to clearing up the fears. Education is crucial to stopping the transmission of the disease."

Now, interestingly, this comes back to me: There was a fight over "The Public Health Service has stated there is no medical reason for barring a person with the virus from any routine school or work activity." That part they tried to remove; certain people tried to remove. They thought it went too far, such as food preparation. That would be work activity. ...

I had to take out mosquitoes -- "You can't catch it from mosquitoes." So it really didn't make much sense to have White House staff second-guessing a medical doctor, but that happened.

It occurs to me: There was a big battle between mandatory testing and voluntary testing. To get through that, we said routine testing. Mandatory testing would be required ... for hospital admissions, for marriage licenses, those kinds of things. That was the conservative position. The opposite position was voluntary testing, so that if you wanted to go into a center you could get tested, and it would be totally confidential, but it would not be required. The compromise, in effect, was routine testing. And what does that mean? I'm not sure to this day, but that's how we got through it. The president was quite definite, though, that it should be considered a contagious disease and not be exempted from that for any political reason. ...

[Read the part of the speech about testing.]

"Just as most individuals don't know that they carry the virus, no one knows to what extent the virus has infected our entire society. AIDS is surreptitiously spreading throughout our population, and yet we have no accurate measure of its scope. It's time we knew exactly what we were facing, and that's why I support routine testing. I've asked the Department of Health and Human Services to determine as soon as possible the extent to which the AIDS virus has penetrated our society and to predict its future dimensions. ..."

Looking back on the speech, what do you think about it?

I think the speech was caught up in politics, and so much of what the president was saying was overlooked. I think the speech should have been made a couple years earlier. The New York Times said the president's heart was in the right place, and I believe that. I think his policies were probably a couple years or more behind.

My one regret is that I had a passage in here about Ryan White. In the various drafts and battles and everything, I dropped that for the three boys. In some ways, it would have been important to mention one person, to put a face to the disease. This is a very generic speech. We never mention groups; we mention behaviors. We don't mention individual people; we mention categories....

Why was Mrs. Reagan the driving force behind the speech?

I think Mrs. Reagan understood the disease better than the president did. She had friends who were affected by the disease, and she knew more people affected by the disease than the president did. I think she saw it in more personal terms than he did. ...

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posted may 30, 2006

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