SAN FRANCISCO — Watching the All-Reagan-All-the-Time television coverage last week might have created the impression that everyone in California was overwhelmed by sorrow over the death of the man who served two terms as the Golden State’s governor before becoming the nation’s fortieth President. But that was not exactly the case.
To be sure, there was mourning and, while much of it was carefully orchestrated by the Reagan family and their retainers, much of it was also sincere. But, for the most part, Californians did not seem to bemoan Ronald Reagan’s passing with any more frenzy or fervor than did other Americans. And in some parts of the state, notably the Bay Area, a lot of people were looking back in anger.
Reagan was never so supremely popular in California as the revisionist histories would have him be. Elected governor in 1966 with 56.6 percent of the vote, Reagan was re-elected in 1970 with just 52.8 percent. The next time he faced the state’s voters in a general election, as the Republican nominee for President in 1980, he fell to 52.7 percent. But, at least that year, he ran two percentage points better in California than he did nationally. By 1984, the last time California voters would have an opportunity to officially assess the man who was so closely associated with their state, Reagan ran a full percentage point behind his national showing–and in San Francisco, a remarkable 67.4 percent of voters cast their ballots for Reagan’s Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale.
From 1985 on, Reagan consistently had a lower presidential job approval rating in California than he did nationally. Indeed, in the last full year of Reagan’s presidency, while he maintained better than 50 percent approval ratings nationally, he fell to the mid-forties in California.
In San Francisco, where Reagan lost election after election, the city’s Chronicle newspaper noted after the 40th president’s death that, “San Francisco’s relationship with Reagan has always been unhappy and uneven.”
That was true even on Friday, as the television networks provided breathless coverage of the former President’s funeral service at the National Cathedral in Washington and the internment ceremony at Reagan’s presidential library in Simi Valley. In one San Francisco neighborhood that a Chronicle writer visited Friday, the newspaper reported, “none of the television sets in bars, barbershops, or appliance stores was turned to the Reagan funeral coverage. In the neighborhood, which has a large gay and lesbian population, the paper also pointed out that “none of the ubiquitous rainbow flags that whipped in the wind Friday afternoon was lowered to half-staff.”
In a city that, perhaps more than any other, felt the devastating impact of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, there is still a great deal of anger over Reagan’s neglect during his presidency of acquired immune deficiency syndrome and the death toll associated with it. On the day of Reagan’s funeral, roughly a dozen candles burned in the windows of the city’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center. A sign urged people to remember those who have died as a result of the AIDS pandemic and, noting Reagan’s refusal to take the AIDS threat seriously, suggested that it was important to recognize, “His failure, their deaths, our mourning.”
Thom Lynch, an activist on AIDS issues, echoed the complaints of many San Franciscans regarding the unrealistically generous interpretations of Reagan’s legacy that dominated media coverage of Reagan’s death. “The media has gone, in my mind, over the top,” Lynch said. “People are willing to give a former President his due, with all the ceremony, but there was a lack of context about his presidency.”
What might the proper perspective be? Start, many San Franciscans would suggest, by recognizing that, when it came to the AIDS crisis, Reagan’s failure to act was devastating. While activists begged the White House to take the disease seriously, Reagan and his aides refused to address the crisis. That failure, AIDS researchers say, prevented the country from mounting the sort of response that could have saved thousands of lives.
“His silence was deafening,” Dr. Mervyn Silverman, who served as director of the San Francisco Department of Health when AIDS was first declared an epidemic in the early 1980s, said in an interview last week. Reagan) “is portrayed as a compassionate and caring individual who brought people out of the doldrums, but his silence on AIDS was tragic.”