WASHINGTON -- The Christian conservative chosen to serve on a presidential AIDS advisory council withdrew his name from consideration Thursday, citing "the current controversy" over his previous remarks about the disease.
Administration officials described the withdrawal of Jerry Thacker, who has AIDS, as "his personal decision," but also sought to distance President Bush from some of Thacker's words, including earlier references to AIDS as "the gay plague."
"The views that he holds are far, far removed from what the president believes," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
News of Thacker's expected appointment to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS was confirmed Wednesday night and quickly ignited a firestorm of negative reaction from leading Democrats, as well as gay civil rights activists and advocacy groups for people with HIV/AIDS.
"Thacker's characterization of AIDS as the 'gay plague' and his offensive public statements about homosexuality indicate a disturbing bias that is completely at odds with the role the advisory commission should play," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said.
The short-lived controversy also cast critical attention on an issue the Bush administration has tried to govern compassionately.
The administration asked Congress for increased federal funding this fiscal year for HIV/AIDS research and for housing for people living with HIV/AIDS. While the administration has yet to release proposed spending levels for fiscal year 2004, officials have indicated they will seek an additional $500 million to fight AIDS around the world.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay political group, commended the administration on its choice of seven other new appointees to the 35-member council, noting that four of them are gay.
"These new leaders offer an opportunity for the panel to change direction and move forward with helpful," more science-based policies, the group said in a statement.
The Thacker appointment also revived criticism from Democrats, activists and some scientists that ideological criteria have played a part in some of the administration's appointments to scientific advisory committees.
The administration's AIDS education effort focuses on abstinence, and information about the effectiveness of condoms in preventing HIV transmission has been removed from some government Web sites.
In a letter sent to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, Thacker insisted he is not "anti-gay."
"I am, however, anti-HIV/AIDS," he wrote. "The three infected people in our family -- my wife, daughter and myself --would not wish this disease on any other human being."
Thacker's wife, Sue, contracted HIV from a blood transfusion she received in 1984. Before she realized she had the virus, she passed it on to her husband and their daughter.
Thacker said he used the term "gay plague" only "in describing the historical context" of the disease. And summaries of his two "chapel speeches" at Bob Jones University posted on the Greenville, S.C., school's Web site reflected the writer's viewpoint more than his own, he said.
Thacker, an educator, vowed to continue his "personal mission of reaching the conservative faith community to give them an accurate message about HIV/AIDS and how to avoid it."