Public concern about the spread of the AIDS virus, triggered by Earvin (Magic) Johnson’s announcement that he had contracted HIV, has launched an unprecedented flurry of fund raising, lobbying and political jockeying--much of it focused on Johnson himself.
Not only has the retired basketball superstar been been asked to serve on the National Commission on AIDS, as the White House announced Tuesday, but he has been barraged with requests to join or simply endorse dozens of organizations ranging from the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) to local, small-budget agencies.
Identification with the popular superstar would be a public relations and fund-raising coup for any organization that Johnson chooses to support, activists agree. So far, Johnson has indicated that his personal efforts will focus on AIDS education in the black community.
Even for groups denied Johnson’s extraordinary star appeal, his announcement and the ensuing public concern have already made a dramatic impact in fund raising, activists say. The Los Angeles-based AIDS Health Care Foundation far exceeded its expectations when it raised more than $1.14 million in pledges during a three-hour telethon Sunday that was available to 60% of California homes that receive cable, agency officials said.
“We have crossed the bridge of this being somebody else’s problem--this being a ‘gay disease,’ ” said Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Health Care Foundation. “We’ve had a fundamental change in consciousness as a result of this.”
At a news conference Tuesday at the AIDS Minority Project in Los Angeles, entertainer Dionne Warwick, a longtime AIDS activist, said she has spoken with Johnson frequently and is counseling him in handling requests “from every part of the world.”
So far, Johnson’s “primary concern first would be his community--the black community,” Warwick said.
Johnson has avoided public attention since an appearance on Arsenio Hall’s talk show after his startling news conference last Thursday. Johnson “is in great spirits. He’s Magic,” Warwick said. She emphasized, however, that Johnson’s physical and emotional well-being are a primary concern of friends and supporters advising him on what role to play in the AIDS battle.
Many Los Angeles AIDS groups have already approached Johnson’s representatives, as have several national organizations.
“I know Liz Taylor (a founder of AmFAR) sent him flowers and is courting him like crazy,” said Mark King, a spokesman for L.A. Shanti Foundation, one of the smaller agencies that have approached Johnson’s representatives. Shanti specializes in assisting people who, like Johnson, have tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus but are not necessarily suffering the ill effects.
“I know that every agency in town is clamoring for him. I know Lon Rosen (Johnson’s agent) is an extremely busy man who doesn’t give out his fax number any more,” King said.
“It’s not just Magic. I know everybody around him is going to be inundated.”
“If Magic is going to tied up for the next four years figuring out who he’s going to support,” King said, “why not go to the people . . . who love him and want to support what he’s doing?”
AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), the county’s largest AIDS organization, also has courted Johnson. Other local agencies have squabbled with APLA over money. But APLA spokesman Anthony Sprauve said it was incorrect to interpret the appeals to Johnson as another internecine tug-of-war.
“We don’t see it as a contest to win him over,” said Sprauve. “Whatever he does and whoever he does it for is going to benefit all people with AIDS and all AIDS organizations.”
Sprauve said he expects Johnson to extend his efforts beyond the black community. “I would suspect he doesn’t want to limit himself--that he would want to help as many people as possible.”
Johnson’s announcement prompted an abrupt change of heart by some corporate philanthropists, said Weinstein, president of the AIDS Health Care Foundation. Some corporations that declined to fund AIDS programs before Johnson’s announcement wrote checks on Friday, Weinstein said.
Some major corporations, Weinstein said, had been reluctant to fund AIDS programs because they were perceived as gay charities. Weinstein said activists intend to increase pressure on corporate philanthropy programs. “We’re hoping this will be considered a mainline, mainstream charity,” he said.
Weinstein warned that, in addition to established AIDS organizations, several “fly-by-night” groups or individuals seem intent on exploiting the issue. He said his organization has been asked to endorse fund-raising campaigns by groups and individuals.
“It seems very exploitational because these people weren’t interested in AIDS before Magic’s announcement, and they see it as a gravy train,” Weinstein said.
Several activists said that although more money is coming in, programs remain substantially under-funded for their needs. The public’s strong response as measured in a continuing flood of calls to AIDS hot lines and visits to HIV testing centers will make AIDS “a central issue” in the 1992 presidential race, the Rev. Jesse Jackson predicted at a Los Angeles news conference.
“We need a commission not just to give the impression that Mr. Bush is concerned. We need an AIDS budget,” Jackson said Tuesday at the Minority AIDS Project in Los Angeles. Jackson, who has made AIDS a major component of his speeches since Johnson’s disclosure, said more funding is needed for education, research, testing and health care, as well as housing the homeless with AIDS.
The National AIDS Hotline, a program of the Center for Disease Control, has been overwhelmed with calls since Johnson’s announcement--largely from people newly concerned about heterosexual transmission of the virus, officials said.
A phone bank that had previously handled about 6,000 calls in a typical day received 128,000 calls on Friday and 78,000 on Saturday--most of which could not be answered. Phones have been ringing “through the night,” said Peggy Clarke, executive director of the American Social Health Assn., which operates the hot line.
HIV testing centers have been an active barometer. The Minority AIDS Project, for example, has conducted a testing service on Saturdays that would typically attract about 15 people. Last Saturday, 107 people were tested--"and we’ve already got more appointments than that for next Saturday,” said the Rev. Carl Bean, the program’s executive director.
Activists say Johnson could play a key role in shaping public policy if he accepts the invitation to join a national AIDS commission that has been highly critical of Bush Adminstration leadership.
“I think it would be absolutely great. . . . It’s like ‘Mr. Johnson Goes to Washington,’ ” said Shanti’s King. “I hate for Bush to get any credit for it, because he’s been the real problem in terms of federal funding.”
King and many other people involved in the AIDS issue have expressed anger that it as taken years and the diagnosis of the disease in a hugely popular sports hero to trigger such broad concern over a virus that, according to the Center for Disease Control, has already killed more than 120,000 people and infected between 1 million and 1.5 million nationwide.
“If we had cared more in 1981, then maybe we wouldn’t have to worry about Magic now,” said Dr. Wilbert C. Jordan, director of the AIDS program at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.
But more than anger, there is a feeling of hope, said Mark King, who is HIV-positive.
“I want to be angry that it takes this to wake people up,” King said. “But I can’t. Because Magic Johnson could save my life.”
RELATED STORIES: C1