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A Star in the AIDS War : Elizabeth Glaser has become an unlikely but premier lobbyist in the campaign against a killer

March 21, 1990|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — This would be the happiest time in Elizabeth Glaser's life if it were not the saddest. She is immersed in the flow of life and having a colossal effect on the world around her, yet this intense, driven woman and her family are fighting AIDS.

"If I didn't have AIDS, if I hadn't lost my daughter to it, if my son didn't have it, if my life wasn't so sad, I would be very fulfilled by what I'm doing," says Glaser, 42.

"I'm realizing my highest potential right now. I am able to communicate about something that I think is important way beyond the scope of my own life."

Even though this wealthy wife of actor/director Paul Michael Glaser is atypical of people confronted by Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome--she is not poor, not a minority, not an intravenous drug user, not gay--she has emerged as the most powerful person pressing Washington for more money to fight the epidemic.

"She is the premier lobbyist on this issue now," says Tom Sheridan, whose AIDS Action Council is the largest lobbying group for federal AIDS legislation. "In fact, the thousands of people we represent could all gather under the Capitol Dome and not get half the attention that Elizabeth Glaser gets when she comes to town."

Most AIDS activists simply do not have the cache to go right to then-President Ronald Reagan as Glaser did two years ago when she decided something was wrong with a world that didn't pay enough attention to children dying of the disease.

Most AIDS activists do not begin a day in Washington with ABC's Joan Lunden and end it with ABC's Ted Koppel. They cannot plunk down comfortably in the offices of U.S. senators such as Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio and Orrin Hatch of Utah. Congressmen's wives do not host lunches for them and cry at their compelling stories. And when other AIDS advocates testify before congressional committees, as Glaser did last week, they do not anger the First Lady.

That Elizabeth Glaser is not like most people threatened by this disease is precisely why she has been so effective in Washington, where deep pockets and glamour go a long way in impressing the powerful.

But while the Hollywood glint has propelled Glaser into an influential spot in the federal bureaucracy, that alone cannot be credited for her success. It has come from a combination of her husband's celebrity, her own determination and the appalling reality of her story.

Glaser contracted the HIV virus that causes AIDS in 1981 from a contaminated blood transfusion after the birth of her daughter Ariel.

During breast-feeding, she unknowingly passed the virus to her daughter, and then passed it to her son, born three years later. Ariel died in 1988. Elizabeth and her son both test HIV-positive, but so far show no symptoms of AIDS. The family continued to try to keep their tragedy private--even after Elizabeth had begun traveling to Washington on behalf of AIDS causes in early 1988.

But then in August, 1989, a year after Ariel's death, the Glasers learned that a national tabloid planned to publish their story. Fearful of distortion, they went to the press themselves.

"If the (tabloid) did anything good, it forced Elizabeth's hand and all the horrible things we all worried about happening didn't happen," says Susan Zeegen, a longtime friend who along with Glaser and another friend, Susan De Laurentis, founded the L.A.-based Pediatric AIDS Foundation two years ago. "Her story has raised enormous awareness and a lot of money too. And all her friends stuck by her."

Joel Johnson, Metzenbaum's legislative director, tries to explain why people in Washington listen to Glaser: "She simply is not like most people who come here, make a case and then go home in hopes that everybody will do the right thing. She doesn't let go of a contact or anybody she can talk to."

AIDS advocates have expressed concern that Glaser's impressive pitch for pediatric AIDS funding--there are 2,055 children younger than 13 who are known to have the disease--might distract politicians from the problems of the other 120,000 people who have AIDS, and who, unlike children, are controversial back in the district.

"Who is going to vote against Elizabeth Glaser?" asks Sheridan of the AIDS Action Council. "She has the public image that members of Congress respond to. Believe me, I've been lobbying for seven years and I can't call members of Congress at home. 'Nightline' isn't interviewing me. She has a lot of power and it's important how she uses it."

Glaser says she tries to "carry this mantle" responsibly. In every speech, every interview, every casual conversation, Glaser says she is not lobbying (she even scoffs at the word, saying it implies she gets paid for her work, which she doesn't) for children alone.

"Every person with AIDS is somebody's child," she lectures a reporter. "AIDS is not a political issue. It's a virus and it kills people, no matter who they are."

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