Johnson Magic

November 16, 1991

In its final report in September, after two years of research and deliberation, the National Commission on AIDS called on government to take more action, and lamented "two destructive attitudes within our borders that hamper these actions. They are a thinly veiled feeling that those who acquire the virus are getting what they deserve, and a collective indifference to their fate."

Credit Magic Johnson with busting through those attitudes as through a poorly executed zone defense. The announcement by the basketball mega-star that he has tested HIV-positive has already had three impacts on public opinion.

The first is to make infection respectable. People are saying they are infected who previously did not dare and more people are getting tested. This does not make certain behaviors that are the leading pathways to AIDS more acceptable than they were before. It does help the public health effort -- including the health of people who do not indulge in those behaviors -- and works toward holding down the number of victims.

The second effect is to publicize the heterosexual potential of AIDS. The World Health Organization has announced that three-fourths of the people in the world who have AIDS were infected through heterosexual activity. The estimate for the U.S. is one-tenth and growing. The vision of a breakout of AIDS into the heterosexual communities is a self-negating prediction. If everyone believes it, it won't happen; if they don't, it will.

The third effect, Magic Johnson's ability as an educator on an at-risk population that worships him, has been widely noted. If he is not immune from this immune-deficiency, neither is the best jump-shot on the playground. But his influence goes further. That's why President Bush offered to appoint him to the National Commission for AIDS. Frankly, it is not for what Mr. Johnson can tell the commission, which has completed its main work. Its remaining job is not to educate the public, but to persuade the government to implement its report.

The report called for White House leadership, higher congressional funding, a national plan to identify priorities and resources for prevention and treatment, universal health insurance, in its absence a Medicaid eligibility for low-income people with HIV -- and other policies or spending levels that do not now exist. Mr. Johnson might be more effective than ten physicians in testifying to Congress or lobbying the White House, providing that the commission can persuade him of the correctness of its recommendations.

No wonder Mr. Bush was quick to say perhaps he had not done enough on AIDS. Never mind that Magic Johnson is a hero to some 12-year-old point guard with holes in his sneakers. "He is a hero to me," said George Bush. That is the Johnson Magic.

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