Goodbye To The 'Condom Queen'

When surgeon general Joycelyn Elders suggested last week that schools might teach masturbation as safe sex, President Clinton fired her. But he can't say he was surprised. In 1987, after Governor Clinton appointed Elders to be director of the Arkansas Health Department, she was asked at her first press conference whether she favored giving condoms to public-school children. ""Well, I'm not going to put them on their lunch trays, but yes,'' she answered. On her desk in Little Rock, she put an ""Ozark Rubber Plant'' that sprouted curled condoms. She told an abortion-rights rally that abortion foes needed to get over ""their love affair with fetuses.'' She badgered state legislators for money to pay for sex education and contraception. She did pause to ask, ""Governor, should I back off?'' But Clinton just replied, ""No, no, Joycelyn, I love it. Keep it up.''

Elders described her job as surgeon general as a ""bully pulpit.'' She preached without regard for the political consequences. Should homosexuals be allowed to join the Boy Scouts? inquired The Advocate, a gay magazine. Absolutely, declared Elders -- and lesbians should be allowed to join the Girl Scouts, too. Asked why the government should spend more on AIDS research than on heart disease and cancer, she replied, ""Most of the people who die with heart disease and cancer are our elderly population.'' She took special delight in tweaking the religious right, whom she referred to as the ""un-Christian religious right'' for its opposition to her proposals on sex and AIDS education in schools. She announced that Medicare must have been ""developed by a white male slave owner'' because it failed to pay for new forms of contraception like RU-486.

She seemed to court disaster. In December 1993 she suggested studying the legalization of drugs, arguing it would reduce inner-city crime. Two weeks later Arkansas police arrested her son for selling cocaine to a police informer in a sting operation the previous summer. He admitted he was a cocaine addict, and received a 10-year prison sentence.

The inevitable outcry swept talk radio. Rush Limbaugh dubbed Elders the ""Condom Queen.'' The Traditional Values Coalition mailed petitions to 30,000 churches to request her dismissal as surgeon general. White House aides recognized that she was becoming a liability. Chief of staff Leon Panetta told reporters that he had taken Elders to ""a modified woodshed'' after her comments about abortion foes. Aides say Clinton himself warned her to be more discreet.

But moderation has never been her style. Her house near Little Rock had a bathtub that could fit four people and a barbecue large enough to roast a cow. Elders has lived all her life by defiance. The daughter of a sharecropper, she never saw a doctor as a child, but she became a pediatric endocrinologist and published 150 research papers. Home from medical school for a visit in 1957, she took a couple of her young siblings to a drive-in movie. Told to park in the back because she was black, she parked her car in the middle and refused to budge.

When she made her remark about masturbation last week, she knew there was a reporter from U.S. News in the audience, sent to write a profile. Elders was not about to change her style or her convictions. What changed was Clinton -- and the election results.