The White House sought to distance President Bush on Friday from Surgeon General David Satcher after the Clinton administration appointee issued a report encouraging communities to offer a broad range of sex education in their schools.
The president's spokesman Ari Fleischer took issue with the substance of the report. And, asked whether Bush has confidence in Satcher, Fleischer declined an opportunity to voice support for the surgeon general.
"That's not a question I'm addressing," he said.
Satcher's term expires in February. His report, prepared over two years, was once scheduled to be published last fall. That timetable would have been problematic for the Clinton administration, which was focused on helping Vice President Al Gore's bid for the White House.
Publication of the report this week threw the current administration into the controversy over sensitive social issues, and a conservative social policy group, Focus on the Family, said it had spoken with White House officials to seek Satcher's dismissal.
The controversy comes as Bush seeks to keep conservatives and other core supporters satisfied without alienating moderates.
A veteran Republican strategist who works frequently with the White House said Bush would be well advised to offer a nod to his right: "Give 'em some rhetoric," he said, and ignore Satcher's presence, because "he'll be gone in February."
Satcher, reached at his home Friday night, said it would be a positive development if debate over his tenure prompts Americans to read and discuss the report. He added that he intends to serve the remainder of his time "as long as I feel I am making a positive difference. I'm not going to stay just to be staying."
Two weeks before Bush took office, Fleischer suggested the new administration saw no reason for Satcher to leave.
In the report, Satcher urged Americans to respect diversity in sexual values. He said communities should provide lifelong sex education, encouraging abstinence as well as birth control.
The surgeon general said that Americans should develop greater understanding toward gays and lesbians, and that they should move beyond nervousness about sexual subjects to reduce unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual abuse, while promoting healthy sexual relationships.
Peter Brandt of Focus on the Family said Satcher should be fired for promoting a "model for sexual health" that "is not the model most Americans would want for their kids."
Fleischer said Bush had not read the report but had been given a summary. "The president understands the report was issued by a surgeon general that he did not appoint."
For decades, surgeons general have been at the center of controversy. In 1935, Thomas Parran shocked listeners by saying "venereal disease" on the radio.
More recently, C. Everett Koop encouraged the use of condoms to prevent disease. And in 1994, Jocelyn Elders was pressured to resign after telling an AIDS forum that she believed masturbation "perhaps should be taught" to schoolchildren.
Times staff writer Marlene Cimons contributed to this story.