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Max Robinson's Silent Struggle With AIDS

December 22, 1988|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In his short life, former ABC television anchorman Max Robinson admitted having many problems: alcohol abuse, racial struggles, career disaster and three failed marriages. But he never publicly acknowledged having the disease that would end his life.

Yet in his death at 49, Robinson had his family reveal that he had AIDS so that others in the black community would be alerted to the dangers of the disease and the need for treatment and education.

AIDS activists have been grappling with that paradox in the hours since his death Tuesday, while Robinson's close friends defend his right to privacy.

Some activists expressed disappointment that Robinson, who was the nation's first black network news anchorman, did not choose to serve as a spokesman to the black community about how to prevent the disease.

"I'm saddened in the sense that Max Robinson had a real significant value as a symbol for the black community and it would have been more powerful had Max Robinson been enlisted (in the fight against AIDS) while he was alive, talking about himself as a person with AIDS," said Don Edwards, the executive director of the National Minority AIDS Council in Washington.

"It's very ironic that it's being said he wanted to be remembered for the need for black Americans to be educated about AIDS, because he never really acknowledged he was a person with AIDS when he was alive. Many of us were aware of his diagnosis and we would have liked to have had the credibility of his message added to the work we were trying to do."

Robinson did not speak out publicly, said his close friend, history professor and ex-journalist Roger Wilkins, because "he needed all his strength to fight the disease."

"You know how you people (press) are," Wilkins added. "If Max had said a year ago, 'I have AIDS, and I'm going to be a spokesman for research on AIDS,' it would have killed him in six months. Journalists would have been all over him day after day, not only with questions for guidance in life but also with extraordinarily personal questions.

"The man had a limited time to live. He did what I think is a gallant, absolutely appropriate thing, fight the disease, give strength and comfort to people who loved him and were close to him, nurture young black journalists, and then use his death as a major educational event."

Wilkins angrily characterized as "squalid" queries about how Robinson was infected.

"It's nobody's business. He was my close friend and I don't know, so why do strangers who pay a quarter for the newspaper have to know?" said Wilkins.

After becoming the first black person to co-anchor a national news broadcast at ABC in 1978, Robinson spoke out about racial prejudice at his workplace to a Smith College audience in 1981. In 1983 he left the network after being demoted, and lasted only two years at Chicago's WMAQ before leaving to free-lance, essentially disappearing from broad public view.

Along the way, there were episodes of drinking, erratic behavior and failure to show up at important times.

In an interview with the Washington Post last May, Robinson explained his problems by saying, "I think one of my basic flaws has been a lack of self-esteem, not really feeling good about myself, always feeling like I had to do more. I never could do enough or be good enough. And that was the real problem."

Wilkins said, "America does weird things to people. Max started out in segregated schools in Richmond and ended up in the news room of ABC and that's a long trip. And he started out in days of deep segregation when the whole white culture was telling the little boy he was second-class.

"And I don't care how strong you are or how strong your parents are, that is a terrible thing to do to a human being. It gets inside him and makes things shrivel where they should be growing."

In Robinson's final months, his friends said, he exuded a sense of peace and serenity and was always more interested in talking about what others were doing than in dwelling on his illness.

"I think the love of friends was one of the things that kept Max alive for such a long time," said Bernard Shaw, a news anchor for Cable News Network and a close friend for 20 years. "Max at the time of his death had more arms around him than he had when he was fighting lonely battles fighting racism in the (television) industry, fighting the things all of us deal with in our personal lives.

"He had no bitterness whatsoever at the end. I called him from Westwood the night before I anchored the presidential debate and he used most of his energy in that conversation wishing me well and telling me how much he was proud of me and how much he loved me."

Shaw said he does not know how Robinson got AIDS.

"I never brought it up with him," said Shaw. "We had a secret code that when we wanted to talk about personal things we would initiate the subject and not be asked about it. He knew I loved him and respected his privacy. I never discussed the subject of AIDS with him.

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