If Papa Won't Preach It, Young Ron Reagan Will, with a Tv Pitch Promoting Safe Sex

updated 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The young man talking into the TV camera has a message his parents might not want to hear. "The U.S. government is not moving fast enough to stop the spread of AIDS," he says. "If you don't think enough is being done, write to your congressman—or to someone higher up." Suddenly, the war against AIDS has an unlikely but famous foot soldier: Ron Jr. The 29-year-old First Son is angry, and he has decided not to mince words or play politics.

"This is a condom and this is spermicide," he announces in a just-completed AIDS-education TV film. "Get them and learn how to use them." In other segments of the controversial 30-minute program AIDS: Changing the Rules, which is aimed at heterosexuals, model Beverly Johnson, Reagan's co-host, gets graphic about how to make oral sex safe and salsa singer Ruben Blades uses a banana to demonstrate the proper application of a condom.

"The trouble is going to be getting this on the air," admits Ron, whose no-nonsense lecture about drugs and syringes is a far cry from his glib lifestyle commentary on Good Morning America. The film, and four public service spots made in conjunction with it, will be available this week for local and national broadcast.

What will Mom and Dad think? Having weathered the embarrassment of son Michael's upcoming autobiography and daughter Patti's peek-a-boo novel, can the Reagans tolerate their younger son speaking out on AIDS when the Administration has so long been silent? "People are always thinking I'm going to get in trouble with my parents," says Ron. In fact, he says he urged the film's producers to make the message stronger. "These folks were worried about pushing me too far. I kept saying, 'Why is this so watered down?' "

Ron says he did tell his mother and father about the film in advance, but not to get their permission. Besides, he denies he is taking any private battles public. "I don't need to make a public-service announcement to get my opinion heard by my father," says Ron, who speaks with his parents once a week. "I can call my dad up anytime and say whatever I want to him—and I do. He's gotten a lot of flak from me on this issue."

As Ron sees it, his father is getting bad counsel from "people who just think about image and votes." At his request, the script for the public-service announcement was changed slightly from its original form—"write your congressman, or my father"—to deflect the focus from the President. Instead, Ron Jr. points the finger at some of the President's supporters. He is particularly annoyed with Secretary of Education William Bennett, who advocates restricting AIDS education in the schools. "Those who exploit this issue for their own personal ideological agendas lack all conscience," says Ron. Warned that right-wing ideologues such as Phyllis Schlafly might criticize the TV spots, young Reagan replies tartly, "Getting flak from the likes of Phyllis Schlafly is an honor. I'd wear a T-shirt that says, 'I took flak from Phyllis Schlafly.' You'd get applause when you walked down the street."

As for archconservatives and fundamentalists who advocate mandatory testing for AIDS and possible quarantine of those carrying the virus, Ron says passionately, "I'm waiting for the day when one of those people says something with me in the room. They're not interested in the most effective way to fight the disease. They couldn't give a rat's ass whether or not one million, two million or 10 million gays die of AIDS. They'd probably be just as happy to put them in a camp somewhere and let them die."

For Ron Jr., the issue is personal as well as political. He and his wife, Doria, a UCLA graduate student, have lost a dozen friends to AIDS. "These were people who had a positive influence on my life and Doria's," says Ron Jr., who donated his $400 film fee to AIDS research. Moreover, he believes his parents—who, he insists, do not endorse quarantining or broad mandatory testing—might have been influenced by their own experience as well. "They lived most of their lives in the entertainment community," he says. "Their attitude toward people's sexuality is it's everyone's private business."

Like other Washington observers, Ron believes the death of his father's pal Rock Hudson affected the President's attitude toward AIDS. "My father has the sort of psychology where he grasps on to the single anecdote better than the broad wash of a problem," he says. "So when it's a particular name he knows, suddenly the problem crystallizes."

Though pushing Washington into greater action is a priority for Ron Jr. right now, he still thinks that politicians are "the worst people to leave this issue to. The important thing to them is which side should I come out on to get my ass reelected." With the exception of Surgeon General Everett Koop, he says, "everybody is looking at everything but the problem."

Whether his father joins him or not, Ron Jr. plans to soldier on. "Come on, goddamn it," he says to the world at large, "how many people have to die before you get out and say something?"

From Our Partners