Here's another political pop quiz. For $100,000 and dinner with Regis Philbin. . . . Guess the name of the politician:
He opposes same-sex marriage.
He opposes gay and lesbian child adoption.
He has never publicly said the word AIDS after five years in office.
He scuttled a pending hate-crimes bill that contained a sexual orientation clause.
He supports mandatory AIDS reporting, in opposition to local and national advocacy groups.
Jesse Helms? Pat Robertson? Gary Bauer? Wrong. It's George W. Bush, Republican front-runner and poster child for the new, softer, fuzzier big GOP tent that's been given the image make-over a la Martha Stewart. And just as skin deep.
On Nov. 21, Bush let the cat out of his bag of tricks, finally coming out of the compassionate-conservative closet: He refused to meet with the gay Log Cabin Republicans. Ironically, the group, anathema within the largely Democratic gay community, could not have been more benign or conciliatory toward Bush, hoping despite his devastating five-year homophobic record that he was really a sheep in wolf's clothing. It turned out there was just more wolf.
Ladies and gentlemen, now the bonus round. For $1 million cash and no dinner with Regis Philbin . . .
Forty-nine governors responded to an urgent personal letter in early September from Children Uniting Nations Chairperson Daphna Ziman for assistance regarding the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Only one governor ignored the plea. Which one?
George W.? Correct.
"Even his brother responded," says Ziman, who just received the global peace and tolerance lifetime achievement award from the Friends of the U.N., along with Mikhail Gorbachev. "When it comes to AIDS, I just think he doesn't care."
There seems to be a lot that George W. Bush doesn't care about--or if it doesn't register within the limited radar of his interest, it's tuned out.
AIDS can't be tuned out. Even if it shifts away from high-profile urban white gay men, who have the resources--or political savvy--to keep it in the foreground, to inner-city minority communities. Even as it shifts from men to women, for whom medicine historically under-calibrates a gender-specific paradigm. Even as it now swallows vast portions of Africa and Russia, oceans removed from the immediacy of North America.
"It's still a crisis for all of us," Ziman assesses, reacting to promises of 100,000 basketballs from one governor to be shipped overseas to the 10 million infected African children, and to California Gov. Gray Davis' offer of medical expertise and consultation by the state's premier medical faculty within the University of California system.
It is telling that Bush alone, among all the governors, ignored Ziman's personal letter. "And I sent it twice. As a letter and as a fax. I didn't want to take a chance."
In Bush's home state of Texas, the entire AIDS--not to mention gay and lesbian--organizational infrastructure is war-weary and alarmed that Bush has not addressed AIDS publicly as a social, policy or health issue in his 60 months as governor, despite the state's ranking as fourth-highest in number of cases in the country. Nearly 20,000 Texans have been diagnosed, and just under 10,000 have died under his watch.
"The only time Bush has ever mentioned AIDS is if you look at a framed letter on somebody's wall, in their office, an anniversary of the organization," says Harry Livesay, former advocacy and public policy director for a Houston AIDS service organization. "And it goes, 'Laura and I want to commend you for the fight against AIDS.' That's it."
Ronald Reagan's eight years of silence on AIDS, followed by George Bush's four, are historically annotated as having given the deadly virus a fertile petri dish in which to metastasize in the population.
"I call him Read-My-Lips Lite," Livesay says, riffing on the infamous tag that haunted the senior Bush. "He is just like his dad when it comes to AIDS. I don't think the apple falls very far from the tree."
World AIDS Day was created explicitly to combat the unique silence and apathy about this stigmatized disease that begs, for complex reasons, to be ignored by the establishment. It's as good a day as any to ask Bush, the current leading contender for the highest political office in the world, and to challenge the media who cover him, to ask: "Why have you never addressed AIDS?"