ADDRESSING AIDS HIV-positive Mary Fisher tells GOP about 'our' disease

BACA RATON, FLA. — BOCA RATON, Fla.--It's Sunday -- 2 in the afternoon, to be exact -- and the blazing sun is bouncing sparks off the water shimmering in the pool. There's a Sunday-afternoon stillness outside. And the view through the soaring glass walls of this spectacular house is peaceful, almost bucolic: lush green grass, electric-blue skies and motionless, high banks of pearl-colored clouds.

Inside, however, the pace is quite different.


For one thing, a newspaper photographer is at the front door. For another, an ABC "PrimeTime Live" crew sent by Diane Sawyer is on its way. Then there's a reporter setting up a tape recorder in the living room and, somewhere in another room, there are sounds of a fax machine faxing and a phone ringing.

At the center of all this activity is the woman everyone wants to talk to: Mary Fisher, a 44-year-old mother of two who is scheduled to speak Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention. Dressed in khaki shorts and a simple white blouse, her long, blonde hair framing a fine-boned face, Mary doesn't fit the image of a high-powered Republican speechmaker.


But she's clearly smart and on top of the press blitz going on in her home right now. Still, for all her sophisticated handling of the news media, it seems fair to say this is not the life Mary had in mind a year or so ago.

Back then, before the unexpected detour that would alter her life's course, Mary Fisher had come to a happy place in her life: the emotional and practical details of her divorce were coming to a satisfactory resolution; her children were happy and healthy; and she felt herself to be on the verge of an important breakthrough in her career as an artist.

"I was feeling really good about myself," she says now. "I felt I was getting to one of those plateaus where you say, 'Things are great just the way they are.' "

But, as is often the case, fate -- or whatever you choose to call it -- had its own separate script for Mary Fisher's life.

The outline of this script was delivered to Mary on July 17, 1991, as she stood at a pay phone in New York's LaGuardia Airport. She was off to join her parents, Max and Marjorie Fisher, on a Mediterranean cruise aboard a chartered yacht. Her two small sons were to fly off on a different plane to Detroit to stay with relatives.

But first she had to make the phone call to her doctor in Palm Beach, Fla., that would determine her future. The blow was swift and precise: "I'm sorry," the doctor told Mary. "The test is positive."

It confirmed Mary's worst fears, fears she had carried around with her since the day, two weeks earlier, when her ex-husband called to tell her he had been tested for HIV and the result was positive. He urged her to be tested, too.

She was. Two weeks later, standing in a phone booth, Mary's world -- a world of immense wealth and privilege which by and large had shielded her from much of life's capricious cruelty -- was shattered. She was on the road to AIDS now, and the terrain ahead was dark and frightening. She felt panic about herself and about whether her son, Max, then 3 1/2 , might also be infected with the virus. Zachary, then 1 1/2 , was adopted, so there was no worry there. But as it turned out, Max was luckier than Mary: He tested negative for the deadly virus.


The irony

"In those first several days I felt as though I was surrounded by this fog or film or something," Mary says now, sitting on an oversized sofa in her sun-drenched living room. The room has been turned into a studio and the colorful art she creates is everywhere. "I'm told maybe that

feeling is shock. There was this wish to get rid of this fog and this feeling of just screaming with this pain and this fear and this anger and this 'What do I do?' stuff -- moaning there wasn't anybody or anything that was going to change it."

She stops and laughs. Her laugh, like her voice, is reedy and musical. "I mean, I couldn't call Mom and Dad and say, 'Somebody, help me fix this.' I was immediately face-to-face with the fact that nobody could do anything to fix this."

The immense irony of this last observation is not lost on Mary. She is, after all, the daughter of Max Fisher, an immensely wealthy and powerful financier and philanthropist from Detroit. A lifelong Republican, Mr. Fisher has been a political power broker and major contributor and counselor to presidents for more than 30 years. Max Fisher is the kind of man who knows how to get things done. And at first, after the initial shock, he approached his daughter's illness that way.

"OK, so what do we do?" he said to Mary when she broke the news to him on a yacht anchored in the deep blue Mediterranean water near France's Cote d'Azur.


"I don't think he was sensitized to the disease," Mary says now. "I don't think he realized there wasn't anything he could do."

But gradually Mary began to see there was something she could do. She could use her own story to prove that no one -- not even a married woman who remained faithful to her husband -- is exempt from the danger of contracting AIDS. And as the daughter of Max Fisher, the honorary chairman of the Bush-Quayle National Finance Committee, she knew she could bring home the reality of AIDS to people in positions of power and influence in a way that few others could.

Just as Magic Johnson raised the consciousness of millions of young people about who could get AIDS, it was in Mary's power to do the same for another group that had been insulated from an intimate knowledge of the disease. For many of her friends and her family's friends, Mary's infection changed AIDS from an abstraction to a reality. She was after all, more like them: white, wealthy and a socially prominent mother. And she contracted the disease from sexual contact with her husband, artist Brian Campbell.

"I've certainly been aware of people with AIDS before this," says former first lady Betty Ford who knows what it's like to battle adversity, "but none of them has been as close to me and President Ford as Mary. She and her family have been dear, close friends to us for a long time." The Fords are godparents to Mary's son, Max.

Mary has many such friends in high places, including George and Barbara Bush. But using her access to such people required that she make a tough decision: to go public with the personal facts of her private life. Her physician, along with family and friends, advised her to wait six months. But Mary's mother knew from the beginning that her daughter was determined to wrestle some meaning from the situation.

"When Mary first told me she had AIDS," says Marjorie Fisher, 68, "she turned to me and said: 'I want to go public. I want to help people. I am not going to leave this planet without helping people.' "


And then Marjorie Fisher, who until that day had lever known anyone who had AIDS or whose family was facing AIDS, said this to Mary, the second-born of her five children: "I'm not behind you. I'm right here beside you. If you need me, I'm right here."

When Mary Fisher delivers her address to the Republican National Committee this week, Marjorie Fisher and her husband will be there in the audience. "I'm as proud of her as I can be," says her mother, who went out and bought a dozen books on AIDS the day after she learned Mary was HIV-positive.

The issue

Mary Fisher says the message she will deliver in Houston at the Republican convention will be the same as that delivered by Democratic National Convention speaker Elizabeth Glaser, the wife of actor-director Paul Michael Glaser. Mrs. Glaser, who contracted the deadly virus from a blood transfusion, passed the virus on to both of her children; a daughter died of AIDS four years ago.

And like Mrs. Glaser who established the Pediatric AIDS Foundation as a way of actively taking part in the fight against AIDS, Mary Fisher has founded an organization too: the Family AIDS Network, a national support group for friends and families of those infected by the HIV virus.

"Elizabeth Glaser and I both want the country to pay attention," Mary says, adding that the two women are friends. "To see that this disease is an epidemic and we need to approach it that way. And that we need more research and more money and more education. And that all of us -- business, industry, Republican, Democrat -- need to take a real stand against the discrimination that exists."


However, Mary avoids criticizing the Republican Party as Mrs. Glaser did in her convention speech. But last week Mrs. Glaser expressed her feelings about the message she hoped Mary would deliver at the Republican convention: "It is important that [Mary Fisher] not let the Republican Party off the hook, because they have not done what they need to do."

"I don't think throwing this into the political realm is going to serve any purpose," Mary says upon hearing this quote from Mrs. Glaser. "It's a human issue, not a political issue."

But when she testified at the Republican platform hearings last May, Mary Fisher didn't let her party off the hook. A lifelong Republican, Mary -- who was the first female "advance man" in Gerald R. Ford's White House -- told the platform committee:

"In the past, we thought of this as 'their' disease whoever 'they' were. We [Republicans] cannot do that now, and we will never be able to do that again. This is not 'their' disease, it is 'ours.' We do the president no favor by leaving in place the Republican shroud of silence, encouraging millions of AIDS-affected families believe they must turn elsewhere to hear a voice of genuine


The attention


Republican Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma chaired that platform committee. Aftep hearing her testimony, he suggested to Republican National Committee chairman Richard Bond and others that Mary Fisher be asked to speak at the Houston convention.

"She does an outstanding job," says Sen. Nickles, "and one cannot help but be sympathetic and compassionate toward her for being HIV-positive and not being an IV drug user or someone who has multiple sexual partners or anything like that. . . . I think she has a real sad case that will galvanize sympathy -- especially for those HIV-positive through no fault of their own."

When it is pointed out that Mary Fisher's message seems to be that it makes no difference how one gets AIDS and that everyone is at risk, Sen. Nickles responds: "Well, I think she helps point out that there are some misgivings about how the disease is spread, and there are some innocent victims and they got ill."

At the recent Democratic National Convention, an AIDS-infected gay man was a featured speaker along with Mrs. Glaser. Sen. Nickles says there are no plans to have a representative from the gay community address the Republican convention.

Mary is aware that many in the gay community resent the media attention generated by such AIDS-infected people as Elizabeth Glaser or Kimberly Bergalis or Mary Fisher -- the so-called "innocent victims." Such people are not shunned by the public at large nor do they find themselves in danger of the kind of discrimination that could affect their day-to-day lives.

"I understand all the criticism," she says. "And why people are afraid to speak out. And understandably so. I don't have to worry about losing a job or not being able to pay for treatment if I lose my health insurance. So I'm grateful for the situation I'm in. And that's part of the reason why someone like me has to speak out."


The message

Part of Mary Fisher's goal is to alert women everywhere that when they sleep with a man -- including the man they're married to -- it is important to know who he's slept with and what his habits have been.

When Mary met Brian Campbell in New York, they were both recovering: she from an alcohol problem and he from IV-drug use. The year they began dating was 1984 -- about three or four years into the AIDS era -- and Brian, a promising artist, took an HIV test that proved to be negative.

She says she never questioned him specifically about his past life or his drug habits and that after the HIV test came back negative, "it was never an issue."

They married in 1987 -- a second marriage for Mary who was married briefly in 1979 to a lawyer -- and afterward the couple moved to Florida where they opened an art gallery. Their son Max was born at the end of 1987 and two years later, Brian and Mary adopted Zachary. But the marriage foundered, and in May 1990, Brian moved out and Mary filed for divorce. They remained friendly and Brian saw his children either in Florida or in Boston where he now lives.

Then came the call from Brian informing Mary he was HIV-positive. So far, both Mary and Brian are healthy and have no symptoms that indicate a weakened immune system.


Mary chooses her words very carefully when she talks about how Brian may have become infected with the virus. For one thing, she says, "It doesn't matter how you got it. And I think a lot of people want to put me in a risk category that they can't identify with." She did that herself when she first read Elizabeth Glaser's story: "I was one of the people who said, 'Aha! She had a transfusion. I've never had a transfusion. So I don't have to worry about AIDS.' "

About her husband's infection she says: "The assumption is that experimental IV-drug use is how he got it." Responding to a number of stories that hint Brian may have had a bisexual past, she replies, "I completely rule that out." Why? "Because he says it's not so."

But, she says, it's possible "he could have gotten it sexually from a woman. He was single, living in New York -- nobody can know for sure." She talks about the difficulty of tracing the virus to its source. "It could be 10 people back and the person you're with may be being honest with you when he says he's not at risk. So what do you do?" She pauses, then answers her own question: "You use protection. You use condoms."

She says she and her husband did not practice safe sex -- as is now being advocated by many AIDS specialists even for marital partners -- "because I was trying to get pregnant."

It is when she has to answer such personal questions as these that Mary Fisher must remind herself of why she's giving such interviews: "As much as I welcome the opportunity, you really feel vulnerable when you're talking about something so personal. But it's important and I want people to hear this message, but

it's still a difficult place to put yourself."


The belief

For those ambushed in life by an unexpected confrontation with mortality, the search for meaning often becomes the antidote to the pain of a shortened future. Some even find grace in such a situation. Mary Fisher may be one of those people.

"I don't believe things happen coincidentally," she says. "Things happen and it feels like a coincidence. Then it turns out not to be a coincidence. And I have found some strength in the belief that maybe I am where I am not by chance but because I can do something." She pauses. "For a long time I wrestled with how to compose my life. And all the puzzle pieces of my life never seemed to fit. Until now. Now they all fit."

There's another, longer pause. It's been a long day and the steel-blue eyes seem a little tired now. "I can't explain that. I certainly wouldn't have chosen facing my own mortality as a way to compose a life, but it has brought all the pieces of my life together. And that's kind of amazing. And without sounding weird, I have a real sense that this is right."


Age and education: 44. Grew up in Detroit. Attended the Cranbrook Academies and the University of Michigan.


Career: Television producer in Detroit from 1969 to 1974; staff assistant to President Gerald Ford from 1974 to 1976; producer of an off-Broadway musical in 1985. An artist, she works with handmade paper which is soaked and molded into colored patterns. Represented by the Gallery Camino Real in Boca Raton, Fla., her work has fetched prices as high as $5,000.

Family: Divorced from artist Brian Campbell, she lives with her two sons, Max, 4 1/2 , and Zachary, 2 1/2 , in Boca Raton in a house designed by the same architect who designed many of the houses used in the "Miami Vice" TV series.