Kerry told the gathered heads of state and others that the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) “grew out of our initial efforts in the Senate, I am proud to say,” a reference to the U.S. Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria Act of 2003, which Kerry co-authored with Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
“Last year, I was honored to stand with President Obama as he announced that PEPFAR had not only met but exceeded his goal,” he said, adding that “6.7 million people are now receiving life-saving treatment, and that’s an astounding number – a fourfold increase since the beginning of this administration, since Barack Obama came into office.”
Kerry drew applause by declaring, “We now have to complete the task to end the era of AIDS, period, full stop, end the era!”
Kerry spoke for almost 10 minutes, but with no mention of Bush or the Bush administration.
Bush launched PEPFAR in 2004 with an initial goal of treating two million HIV-infected people in 15 hard-hit countries, 12 of them in Africa, and caring for 10 million infected people and AIDS orphans.
By the time the $15 billion, five-year program was reauthorized in 2008, lawmakers from both parties hailed it as a striking success, and Congress approved $48 billion for fiscal years 2009 through 2013. (In 2013 PEPFAR was again reauthorized through 2018. In FY 2014 $6.7 billion was appropriated for the program, and the administration’s FY 2015 request is $6.4 billion.)
By the time Bush left office, the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa on life-saving anti-retroviral drugs had risen to about two million, up from at most 100,000 people before PEPFAR was launched.
A 2009 study in the American College of Physicians’ publication Annals of Internal Medicine assessing the success of the program found that it had reduced the AIDS death rate in the 12 targeted African countries by 10.5 percent, and had averted about 1.2 million deaths.
Bush left the White House at the beginning of 2009 with approval ratings of 33 percent, but in the ensuing years the one area he was consistently commended for – even by some otherwise critical of his presidency – was the anti-AIDS initiative.
In 2012 British singer Elton John, a longtime AIDS activist who once called Bush “the worst thing that ever happened to America,” admitted in an interview that Bush was the president who had done more than any other in the fight against the deadly virus.
John said that when he met Bush in 2004 “he was amazingly informed about AIDS.” He said he had “so much respect for” the president.
In July of that year, left-wing Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson called PEPFAR Bush’s “greatest legacy.”
“[I]f Africa is gaining ground against AIDS, history will note that it was Bush, more than any other individual, who turned the tide,” Robinson wrote. “The man who called himself the Decider will be held accountable for a host of calamitous decisions. But for opening his heart to Africa, he deserves nothing but gratitude and praise.”
Even the 2012 Democratic Party platform gave a nod to the GOP administration: “Building on the strong foundation created during the previous administration, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has expanded its prevention, care, and treatment programming.”
“I have to be grateful, and you should be too, that President George W. Bush supported PEPFAR,” former President Clinton said in a speech at that year’s Democratic National Convention. “It saved the lives of millions of people in poor countries.”
In an appearance on The Daily Show in late 2011, the Irish U2 singer and Africa campaigner Bono praised the “amazing” job Bush had done in the fight against AIDS – and not just in Africa.
“George kind of knocked it out of the park,” he said. “I can tell you, and I’m actually here to tell you that America now has five million people being kept alive by these drugs. That’s something that everyone should know.”
When Obama met up with Bush during a visit to Tanzania in mid-2013, the current president praised his predecessor, saying PEPFAR was “one of his crowning achievements.”