'Magic' Johnson joins AIDS panel, urges Bush to act 'I am learning,' basketball star says

January 15, 1992|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- He sat, intent through it all, a picture of composure and health amid the overwhelming dimensions of the modern plague and predictions of his own likely fate as a victim of it.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson took his place for the first time yesterday on the panel charged by the president and Congress with responding to the epidemic that has affected him and more than a million others in the United States.

Later, he urged President Bush to "get more involved" in the fight against the disease.

"We are really delighted to have his talents," said Dr. June E. Osborn, chairwoman of the National Commission on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

The commission, founded in 1989, is working on a new national AIDS strategy but had never until yesterday attracted so much public attention.

Fifteen television cameras and dozens of reporters were waiting for the arrival of the 32-year-old basketball star, who quit the Los Angeles Lakers after being diagnosed as carrying the human immunodeficiency virus last year and who has dedicated himself to promoting awareness and prevention of AIDS.

He took his seat between a doctor who has confronted the disease where it is strongest (in New York City) and a lawyer who helped make the nation's blood supplies safe from infection.

He watched slides charting 133,000 deaths and 206,000 cases of AIDS in the United States by the end of 1991, 1 million more infected with HIV and 10 million worldwide with HIV, a total projected to grow to 40 million by 2000.

Most of the lines on the charts went up in what one doctor called an "insidious long-term trend."

There was more hopeful -- but not overly optimistic -- talk of increasingly complex treatments that probably will be available by the time Mr. Johnson needs them. For now, he told Washington schoolchildren earlier this week, he still jogs five miles a day, plays basketball regularly and has his sights set on the next Olympics.

He was described yesterday as being at one end of a "spectrum disease." At the other end lie sickness and death.

"You are now one among many," he was bluntly reminded by Derek Hodel, executive director of the People With AIDS Health Group.

Mr. Hodel chided the commission for doing little but holding hearings and issuing reports, saying, "I blame you for the death sentences implicit in your laissez-faire approach. It is immoral for you to have gathered such information, formulated such recommendations,without screaming bloody murder until you are heard."

He told Mr. Johnson, "I challenge you to do what the commission has been unable to do. I challenge you to call President Bush . . . to challenge him to provide the leadership necessary to stem the AIDS epidemic before it kills you as, I'm sorry to say, it probably will.

"I challenge you to educate President Bush, to challenge his simplistic, moralistic thinking that blames rather thans helps. . . . Send the message, Magic: We are the thousand points of light, and we are being extinguished, one by one."

Mr. Johnson replied that he was only one of 15 members of the commission and added, "I am learning from all of them. . . . I will help in every way I can."

Later, at the White House, Mr. Johnson met with President Bush and asked him to speak out.

"If he speaks out and says that it's out here and he cares, and he cares about our nation in terms of this epidemic . . . then people will listen," Mr. Johnson said, adding that Mr. Bush had asked him to draw up a list of specific suggestions for presidential action.

In the Oval Office, Mr. Johnson handed President Bush a letter saying: "No matter how good the team may be, it won't win the championship without the owner fully in the game. I don't feel you've been there up until now."

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Associated Press, urged increased federal spending over the next two years, including $900 million for the National Institute of Health Research, $900 million for AIDS treatment programs dedicated by Congress to young AIDS victim Ryan White and $500 million for Medicaid payments to cover care for those infected with HIV.

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