A Case of Too Much Candor
Joycelyn Elders was a lightning rod. Then she zapped herself
It was World AIDS Day at the United Nations, and Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders had just finished a routine speech on the spread of the disease when a middle-aged psychologist asked if she would consider promoting masturbation to discourage school-age children from trying riskier forms of sexual activity. Most politicians would have gracefully ducked the question. Elders marched directly into its path. "With regard to masturbation, I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality and a part of something that perhaps should be taught," she told the 200 people in the U.N. audience.
In her 15 months as "the nation's doctor," Elders uttered enough one-liners to transform herself into what one GOP wag called a "campaign ad waiting to happen." But when top officials atthe Department of Health and Human Services learned last Thursday that Elders's December 1 comments on masturbation were about to be published in U.S. News, they warned HHS Secretary Donna Shalala and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. Panetta checked to be sure the quotation was accurate, then advised President Clinton to fire Elders. The masturbation line was damaging enough, Panetta told reporters. But he also could not forget Elders's suggestion that the nation should study the legalization of drugs or her advice to antiabortion activists to "get over their love affair with the fetus." Clinton, in Miami for the Summit of the Americas, called his old friend from Arkansas Thursday night to deliver the bad news.
The 61-year-old sharecropper's daughter had been a self-described "lightning rod" for Clinton ever since he appointed her Arkansas health director in 1987. Moments after her U.N. appearance she was asked why she had answered such a politically treacherous question. "I'm not a politician, I'm a physician," she replied. "I'm about improving the health of all Americans. I'm not about getting elected to a public office."
But after Election Day, the lightning started striking harder. House Republicans Cliff Stearns of Florida and Phil Crane of Illinois had vowed to call again for Elders's resignation when Congress convenes next month. And last month the Traditional Values Coalition, representing 31,000 churches, mailed letters to several hundred thousand supporters urging Elders's resignation. The letters assaulted her "malicious attacks on heterosexuals and Christians," likened them to "the bigoted statements made by the Nation of Islam's spokesman ... about people who are Jewish" and declared: "[She] has gone out of her way to promote sexual activity to underage and unmarried people."
Democrats, too. Not surprisingly, in the wake of their defeat last month, even some Democrats had begun issuing surgeon general warnings. Last week, outgoing Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma, the chairman of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council who lost a Senate bid and blames anti-Clinton sentiment, asked the president to dismiss Elders. Democratic Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana had urged the same.
Elders knew her prognosis was not encouraging. Three weeks ago, two Clinton loyalists who are top officials in the Health and Human Services Department warned her to be on her best behavior and to stop straying from her standard safe-sex themes. In an interview, Elders said the meeting was the third time she had been "cautioned" by top administration officials since she took office. "I guess it's at a crisis now," she said. "If you've lost as many House and Senate seats as you've lost, heaven knows you need to look at where you are."
But Elders, who grew up in a three-room cabin with no indoor plumbing and worked her way through Philander Smith College in Arkansas by scrubbing floors, was no quitter. "Just because they ask does not mean I will resign. Everyone knows that there is [only] one person who can ask for my resignation."
That person finally did. Although aides say Clinton initially was loath to fire one of the few prominent African-American women in his administration, the political pressure finally grew too great to resist. Elders was not available for comment late last week. But just after her U.N. appearance she showed her colors: "You can come in and be about sweet nothings. But that's not what I'm about."
This story appears in the December 19, 1994 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.