Bush Will Keep AIDS Office, Advocacy Groups Remain Wary
The Bush administration yesterday recanted statements made Tuesday by Chief of Staff Andy Card that the White House would close its offices on AIDS and race relations, saying Card simply "made a mistake," USA Today reports. The reversal came yesterday morning following a "brouhaha" that erupted when USA Today printed Card's comments that the offices would be discontinued. Speaking yesterday, Bush spokesperson Ari Fleischer said that the White House will "continue the vital work required to help fight the scourge of AIDS," explaining that the offices would remain open but would now be handled by the Domestic Policy Council and Office of Public Liaison. He also said that rather than being handled by an AIDS "czar," a position created by the Clinton administration, AIDS policy will now be directed by a health expert on the Domestic Policy Council and an AIDS expert from HHS.
A Different Approach to AIDS
Activists were "alarmed" by Card's statement, calling it a "signal that Bush wasn't serious about fighting AIDS and improving race relations." But during an appearance yesterday to promote his tax-cut proposal, Bush sought to quell the flap by saying, "We're concerned about AIDS inside our White House, make no mistake about it" (Keen/Hall, USA Today, 2/8). Clinton created the Office of National AIDS Policy in 1994 for the promotion of better treatment, education and disease research, and it was staffed by three full-time White House officials and five full-time employees from HHS (Allen, Washington Post, 2/8). Although never "deeply staffed" or "deeply financed," the AIDS office "held symbolic value," and according to former office employees, "their frequent access to President Clinton helped bring the issues to the fore of the administration's attention." Former office director Sandra Thurman told the New York Times that she had held the "stature of a full-fledged senior adviser and thus attended high-level administration meetings." Although Card's comments have been corrected, the Times says that he may have "indeed been communicating something real: that under Mr. Bush, the White House might well deal with AIDS ... through different vehicles, using advisers in different niches with different names" (Bruni, New York Times, 2/8). Thurman said, "It's wonderful that they're going to keep [the office] open, but the proof is in the pudding," noting her principal concern that the new administration will treat AIDS primarily as a domestic issue. Although Thurman and her staff vacated the White House last month with Clinton, they have created the not-for-profit International AIDS Trust to continue their work in the private sector (VandeHei/Phillips, Wall Street Journal, 2/8).
Though pleased that the office will remain open, activists "remained confused" by Fleischer's description of how AIDS policy will now be handled by the White House and "skeptical about whether the new configuration would bring high-profile attention to the issues" (Keen/Hall, USA Today, 2/8). AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth & Families Executive Director David Harvey said in a statement, "Along with our colleagues in the HIV/AIDS community, we recommend that President Bush select a director who plans to work in partnership with the community in responding to the epidemic. In order to be effective, [the Office of National AIDS Policy] should have the authority to coordinate HIV/AIDS programs across the federal government, and the director must have access to the president. Finally, ONAP should be held accountable for developing the administration's response to the epidemic" (AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth & Families release, 2/7). Claudia French, executive director of AIDS Action, said that the AIDS office "has got to be more than a door with a shingle. Anything less than a total commitment on the part of the administration is a profound disservice to the millions of people affected by AIDS." Regarding the correction of Card's comments, she added, "The future of the Office of National AIDS Policy under the new administration has been a cause for real concern among our members across the country. While we were encouraged by earlier reports that President Bush decided to keep the office, we are now baffled by double-speak from the White House" (AIDS Action release, 2/7). House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.) said he is pleased that the office will remain open, saying, "There is no question that we must enhance our efforts to fight HIV/AIDS both here in the United States and around the world" (Gephardt release, 2/7). According to the Washington Post, the office closing "confusion marked the first significant stumble of a White House that has basked in mostly favorable reviews for its smooth and disciplined performance" (Washington Post, 2/8).