The day had started well for Lowell, the Clinton campaign’s director of outreach to the gay community. His boss, campaign manager Robby Mook, the first openly gay man to run a major presidential campaign, had just spoken to the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay rights organization, to announce a big fundraiser and fire up an audience of activists.
Then, news broke that Clinton had commended the former first lady for her “low-key advocacy” on fighting AIDS, and Lowell and the rest of the campaign were plunged into controversy.
For many gay men and women who remember the Reagan administration as a time of tragic indifference to a growing and deadly plague, those comments provoked old feelings of anger and frustration.
The reaction threatened to swamp Clinton's campaign just as she was beginning to look past Sen. Bernie Sanders, her rival for the Democratic nomination, and toward a potential general election battle with Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
The story of how the Clinton camp responded offers insights into an episode that served as a stress test for an operation that has proved far more successful than Clinton’s last presidential bid in 2008. The effort demonstrated both the campaign’s ability to react quickly as well as the value of her deep ties with key parts of the Democratic base.
“I can’t think of a single moment that was as quick and effective as [how] they dealt with the statement surrounding Nancy Reagan,” said Bill Burton, who went toe to toe with Clinton’s campaign in 2008 as a spokesman for then-Sen. Barack Obama.
The incident showed that while Clinton’s long history in the public spotlight can be a liability among voters looking for fresh voices, it has also provided her with guardrails that have kept the campaign from spinning off the road when things go wrong.
The campaign was able to take advantage of long-standing relationships within the gay community. The president of the Human Rights Campaign, Chad Griffin, for example, got his start in politics as an 18-year-old volunteer for Bill Clinton in his first presidential campaign. Old ties like that allowed Hillary Clinton aides to quickly reach leading activists and craft a response designed to tamp down a growing furor.
“You forgive your friends,” said Elizabeth Birch, a former leader of the Human Rights Campaign.
The controversy started when Clinton sat down for an interview with MSNBC before Reagan’s funeral in Simi Valley to talk about the former first lady. In a decision that would perplex and infuriate supporters, Clinton raised the AIDS issue on her own.
“Because of both President and Mrs. Reagan — in particular Mrs. Reagan — we started a national conversation, when before nobody would talk about it, nobody wanted to do anything about it, and that, too, is something I really appreciate with her very effective low-key advocacy,” she said.
When the interview ended, Clinton went to Reagan’s funeral services. Meanwhile, outrage quickly spread through social media and sent tremors through a community of donors and activists whose support Clinton is counting on for the November election.
Dana Perlman, a Los Angeles lawyer who is raising money for Clinton, said he started to get phone calls, emails and text messages rapidly after the Reagan comments.
“LGBT voters” – meaning lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender – “are a very powerful bloc,” he said. “We go out, we vote, we get engaged.”
Christine Quinn, the first openly gay speaker of the New York City Council, was among the early callers to Lowell, wondering what the campaign was going to do.
“I’m on a call figuring this out, I’ll be back in touch,” Lowell told her.
“It was all hands on deck,” said campaign spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa.
The response involved some of the campaign’s highest-ranking staff. Maya Harris, a senior policy advisor to Clinton, pitched in. Mook quickly got back in touch with the Human Rights Campaign’s leadership.
Even while Clinton was still at the funeral, campaign aides were gearing up for some sort of correction, said Olivia Dalton, a spokeswoman for the Human Rights Campaign.
“It was very clear to me from the first moment we talked that they knew how serious this was,” she said.
The first response came in a statement posted on Twitter that afternoon, in which Clinton called her interview comments a mistake.
“While the Reagans were strong advocates for stem cell research and finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease, I misspoke about their record on HIV and AIDS,” she said. “For that, I'm sorry.”
Afterward, Lowell called Birch.
“I’ve had better days,” she recalled him saying.
The next day, Clinton expanded on her apology in an essay posted online.
“To be clear, the Reagans did not start a national conversation about HIV and AIDS,” she wrote. “That distinction belongs to generations of brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, along with straight allies, who started not just a conversation but a movement that continues to this day.”
Clinton went on to detail her plans for fighting the disease, including more money for research and efforts to limit the cost of life-saving drugs.
Perlman forwarded a link to a donor who had been dissatisfied with Clinton’s initial apology on Twitter. The donor responded, “That’s exactly what I needed to see.”
The statement also pleased Larry Kramer, the prominent gay activist who had helped start ACT UP, the protest movement that drew attention to the AIDS crisis.
After Clinton’s initial comments, he told the online magazine Slate that he was considering a vote for Sanders. When she apologized on Twitter, he called it “an insult” in a Facebook post and said, “Hillary’s boo boo is not going to go away.”
The next day, Kramer posted a link to Clinton’s essay.
“I almost can’t believe she wrote this, but am so happy that she did,” he said. “Boy did she work fast to react to the pressure that so many of us immediately commenced. Onward!”
Joe Jervis, who runs the popular gay news blog, Joe My God, from his apartment in Manhattan, was one of the people furious over Clinton’s comments.
Her words had stirred memories of visiting dying friends in the hospital and, unsure how this mysterious new disease spread, being afraid to touch them. Even now it can be difficult to explain to younger gay men who didn’t grow up during the AIDS crisis why they don’t see an older generation out around town, he said.
“Most of us are dead,” Jervis said. If it weren’t for AIDS, “you would see a lot more of us in the bars. We wouldn’t be such a rarity.”
However, Jervis sees a silver lining in the controversy over Clinton’s comments.
“It got the entire country talking once again about the horrific inaction of the Reagan administration,” Jervis said. “In the long run, aside from whatever damage it may or may not have done to the Clinton campaign, it was a good thing for gay people.”
For more on Campaign 2016, follow @ChrisMegerian