Mary Fisher addresses the crowd at the 1992 Republican National Convention. (Mary Fisher)

From the Party of Dole to the Party of Donald: How the GOP Chose Its Current Path

At the 1992 Republican National Convention, Mary Fisher spoke to an audience convinced of their own immunity — to a virus sweeping the nation, to the sin of prejudice, and to the problems of their fellow Americans.

Her country presaged our current apocalypse. Unemployment spiked and civilians rose up against police brutality. A transformed Republican Party governed the United States. But the most significant similarity came in sickness: just as we now fight COVID-19, Americans then battled the new and terrifying AIDS epidemic.

HIV/AIDS was first identified in the U.S. in 1981, the year of Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration. Because the virus disproportionately infected gay men, HIV diagnoses carried a homophobic stigma — and in the 1980s, evangelical Christians carried the GOP. Reagan let their prejudices guide his policies, refusing for years to personally acknowledge the epidemic and funding a national AIDS budget smaller than that of San Francisco. His administration showed little more sympathy to other groups afflicted with AIDS, including sex workers, intravenous drug users, and poor Black and Latinx communities. George H.W. Bush’s response improved on Reagan’s, but he still opposed gay rights, and his efforts were nowhere near enough.

In 1992, Mary Fisher took the convention stage to force Republicans to reconsider their indifference. The scion of a prominent conservative family, Fisher was white, wealthy, and a friend of the Bushes and the Fords, another presidential family. She was also an AIDS activist living with HIV.

The speech she gave, which became known as “A Whisper of AIDS,” checked every rhetorical box. She began with an unusual, compelling hook, asking for “your attention, not your applause.” She endeared herself to the audience as a devoted mother of young sons. And she offered clear, jaw-dropping statistics: “Two hundred thousand Americans are dead or dying,” she warned. “A million more are infected.”

Then, with the audience struck silent, Fisher leapt to the heart of her sermon:

Tonight, I represent an AIDS community whose members have been reluctantly drafted from every segment of American society. Though I am white, and a mother, I am one with a black infant struggling with tubes in a Philadelphia hospital. Though I am female and contracted this disease in marriage, and enjoy the warm support of my family, I am one with the lonely gay man sheltering a flickering candle from the cold wind of his family’s rejection….

We may take refuge in our stereotypes, but we cannot hide there long. Because HIV asks only one thing of those it attacks: Are you human? And this is the right question: Are you human? Because people with HIV have not entered some alien state of being. They are human. They have not earned cruelty and they do not deserve meanness. They don’t benefit from being isolated or treated as outcasts. Each of them is exactly what God made: a person. Not evil, deserving of our judgment; not victims, longing for our pity. People. Ready for support and worthy of compassion.

Fisher framed her entreaty in Republican logic, arguing they could not “praise the American family but ignore a virus that destroys it.” She reiterated the shame of prejudice and called for the GOP to “lift our shroud of silence.” Then, she gave her calls to action. Some, she addressed to her children; others, she addressed to the audience:

To the millions of you who are grieving, who are frightened, who have suffered the ravages of AIDS firsthand: Have courage and you will find comfort.

To the millions who are strong, I issue this plea: Set aside prejudice and politics to make room for compassion and sound policy….

To all within the sound of my voice, I appeal: Learn with me the lessons of history and of grace, so my children will not be afraid to say the word AIDS when I am gone. Then their children, and yours, may not need to whisper it at all.

As Fisher leaned back from the lectern, tens of thousands of people rose from their seats to applaud her. Almost thirty years later, her speech is widely regarded as one of the greatest of the 20th century. Reporters from the New York Times to the Houston Chronicle assumed her sermon, so well-received, had made an impact. After all, Fisher’s plea had precedents — from George H.W. Bush’s vision of a “kindler, gentler nation” to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s call for “compassion” for AIDS victims.

The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) demonstrates in front of the FDA headquarters in 1988. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration.)

But in fact, “A Whisper of AIDS” shows the limits of even the most inspiring oratory. Bush lost the 1992 election, so we cannot say how Fisher’s plea may have affected his policies. But even after the Clinton administration made strides in AIDS research and treatment, Fisher believed national attitudes toward AIDS patients had worsened. People “don’t think it’s their problem,” she told the Times in 1995. “I don’t think it matters how you get this disease. If you ask that question, you’re already judging.”

Instead, the GOP followed the path laid out in another address from the 1992 convention — one delivered by a man who months before had been branded a “walking hate crime.”

Pat Buchanan built his career on a kind of combative conservatism, as a columnist, commentator, and writer for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. In 1992, he had broken an unspoken code and challenged his own party’s incumbent in the presidential primary. Bush won, but at a cost: because Buchanan had grabbed a whopping 37 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, the GOP offered him a primetime speaking slot at the convention.

And he used it. In his speech, Buchanan announced that Republicans were fighting a religious and cultural war. He railed against Democrats’ immorality and decried feminism, gay rights, reproductive rights, environmental protections, and uprisings against police brutality. He praised Reagan as one of America’s greatest presidents and did not mention the AIDS epidemic. And he spoke about poor, working-class Americans who felt the parties had left them behind:

My friends, these people are our people…. They share our beliefs and our convictions, our hopes and our dreams. These are the conservatives of the heart… And we need to reconnect with them.

Those ideas sound familiar because Republicans have resurrected them in the form of Donald Trump — in his nationalism and xenophobia, his racism and anti-Semitism, his indifference as hundreds of thousands of Americans die from another global pandemic. Republicans faced a crossroads between Fisher’s compassion and Buchanan’s bigotry, and they chose the darker path.

Buchanan’s speech nods at the reasons for Republicans’ regression — from the party of Dole to the party of Donald. His address was one small part of a larger movement of narrow-minded nativism. He touched on truths now widely acknowledged about our failed economy and Republicans’ entrenched social conservatism. He recognized correctly that as marginalized Americans raised their voices, it made white, Christian members of the GOP feel silenced and scared.

Pat Buchanan greets an enthusiastic crowd at the 1992 RNC. (Ron Edmonds/Associated Press.)

But more than anything, Buchanan’s speech succeeded because he asked less of his audience than Fisher did. For all Fisher’s eloquence, her careful words and kindness, the fact remains: she told Republicans that they were wrong. She told her audience that they had to change their behavior and beliefs — not AIDS victims, not Bill or Hillary Clinton, and not the Democratic Party.

Buchanan, by contrast, told Republicans that they were right — right about morality, right about police brutality, right about the economy, security, religion, right about rights. And people that right did not have to change. Rather, they had to fight to “take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.”

Over the past thirty years, that conviction of their own rigid righteousness has defined the GOP. And it has proved correct one of Fisher’s points in 1992: “We must act as eloquently as we speak — else we have no integrity.”

Today’s Republican Party has even less integrity than their predecessors who hushed AIDS to a mere whisper. It’s a sorry achievement, and a shameful stain on our nation’s fraying fabric.

Abby White

In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.

Watch Mary Fisher’s 1992 Republican National Convention address here.

Follow Abby White and West Wing Writers on Twitter.

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