President Clinton fired outspoken Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders on Friday for telling an AIDS forum that she believes masturbation "perhaps should be taught" to schoolchildren.
Ousting the most controversial official of his Administration, Clinton said Elders' comments reflect "differences with Administration policy and my own convictions, and have made it necessary for her to tender her resignation."
Clinton delivered word of his decision in an afternoon phone call to the 61-year-old physician, who has come under fire from conservatives for her outspoken views on sex education, distribution of condoms and legalization of drugs.
Clinton had disagreed with a series of earlier Elders statements, according to White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta. "There is a record of those statements, as all of you know," Panetta said. "But some of them involved Catholics having a love affair with fetuses, comments about legalizing drugs, comments regarding teaching 5-year-olds the use of condoms."
But the latest comment, Panetta said, "is just one too many." Clinton believes notions that schools should teach masturbation "are wrong, and feels that's not what schools are for," Panetta said. "And it is not what a surgeon general should say."
In an interview with CBS News late Friday, Elders said she was not ashamed of what she did as surgeon general. "I think we all may wish we said things differently, but I have no regrets. Words are strange things. Once they are out, you can't get them back."
Elders said she was asked to resign as a result of several controversial statements she made since taking office, not just the most recent remark on masturbation. "Nothing is ever the result of just one thing," she said.
Elders, who was Clinton's health secretary for five years in Arkansas before joining the Administration, made her comments before an audience of several hundred people gathered in New York last week for World AIDS Day.
Amid a discussion of AIDS prevention, she was asked by an audience member about the prospects that masturbation could be more openly discussed and promoted as a means of keeping young people from riskier sexual activity.
"I think that it is something that's part of human sexuality and it's part of something that perhaps should be taught," she said. "But we've not even taught our children the very basics. And I feel that we have tried ignorance for a very long time and it's time we try education."
Elders' departure eliminates a figure who had become an increasing source of vulnerability for the Administration at a time when it could ill afford more attacks from the right. Although rumors of her ouster were circulating within the White House before disclosure of the latest incident, officials denied that the firing was a sign of Clinton's move toward the political right.
The firing brought swift reaction from conservatives, who called it overdue and hailed it as a sign of the after-effects of conservative victories in last month's midterm elections. But some liberal groups, including gays and family planning organizations, defended Elders as a public-spirited official who told the truth.
Officials said Elders did not try to talk Clinton out of the decision. In a statement, Elders said: "I feel this halfway point is a good time for me to go. While some Administration officials and I have some honest differences over the issues, President Clinton and I maintain our strong mutual respect for each other."
White House officials said the decision to fire Elders was prompted by word on Thursday that U.S. News & World Report was about to publish an account of the comments in next week's editions.
Panetta said that he, Clinton and Donna Shalala, secretary of health and human services, already had warned Elders about statements that diverged from Administration views.
Elders, a pediatric endocrinologist, said from the beginning of her term that she intended to use her position to promote widespread school-based sex education and services for teen-agers, including the availability of contraceptives. She also said she would advocate freedom of choice in abortion and the medicinal use of marijuana.
After her confirmation, she enraged critics by suggesting that the nation study legalizing drugs as a way of reducing crime.
To the Administration's embarrassment, her son, Kevin, was arrested in July, 1993, for selling one-eighth of an ounce of cocaine. He was later sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In one interview, Elders annoyed the Girl Scouts by saying that "girls who are lesbians should be allowed to join the Girl Scouts." The organization responded by saying it had no official policy on sexual orientation and had been unfairly attacked.
Last June, 87 GOP congressmen asked Clinton to fire her for remarks she made encouraging gays and lesbians to save children from "the un-Christian religious right." The White House responded with a letter of support that contained a disclaimer insisting that Elders' opinions "do not necessarily reflect those of the President and his Administration as a whole."
Later last summer, Panetta told reporters that he had lectured Elders for saying that Catholic priests and others who oppose abortion have "a love affair with the fetus."
Elders' departure marks a further diminution of the large group of Arkansans who joined Clinton in Washington in the heady early days of his Administration.
She served as chief of the Arkansas health department under then-Gov. Clinton, who appointed her in 1987, and served in that position until he nominated her for the surgeon general's post. She joked at the time that "he said when I was appointed director of health in Arkansas that he didn't know what he was getting. After five years, he knows what he is getting."
Although Clinton sometimes pointed out his differences with Elders, he also seemed proud that his Administration could tolerate an official of such controversial views.
After she urged consideration of drug legalization in 1993, Clinton defended Elders' right to be "outspoken and energetic in a way that I don't necessarily agree with."
But Elders' comments were so controversial that even members of Clinton's own Administration did not hesitate to take shots at them.
In an interview Friday on the Court TV cable network, Thomas Constantine, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, called Elders' support for drug legalization "totally inappropriate."
"If somebody at that level of a surgeon general (is) talking about legalization as an appropriate remedy, we've lost our will to do something about it. . . . I think it's a crazy idea."
William J. Bennett, a conservative scholar and former education secretary, said Elders' firing was "appropriate today and it was appropriate a year ago. She's really in a class by herself in terms of bizarre comments, out of the mainstream attitudes and embarrassment to the Administration."
But Bennett said Clinton's action Friday was a cynical political decision made as he lurches to the right in response to last month's election results.
"I would call this the first personnel decision of the new Republican majority," Bennett said. "They're just reading the winds and pretending they're 'shocked' by this most recent statement and not the long history of statements."
But other conservatives lamented the loss of a valuable target.
Times staff writers John M. Broder and Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.
Profile: Joycelyn Elders
* Born: Aug. 13, 1933, in Schaal, Ark.
* Education: She enrolled at Philander Smith College in Arkansas when she was 15 years old on a full-tuition scholarship and obtained her bachelor's degree in 1952. After graduation, she joined the U.S. Army. After her discharge in 1956, she attended medical school at the University of Arkansas and graduated in 1960. She did her internship at the University of Minnesota Hospital from 1960-1961.
* Career: After finishing her internship, she joined the University of Arkansas Medical Center in 1961, and in 1963 was the chief resident of pediatrics. In 1967, after receiving her master's in biochemistry, she began her teaching career at the university. In 1987, then Gov. Clinton appointed her to head the Arkansas Department of Health.
* Personal: Married to Oliver Elders, two sons. Methodist.
Source: Who's Who Among Black Americans, 1994.