White House pushing for surgeon general choice

July 14, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Amid right-wing attacks that Surgeon General nominee M. Joycelyn Elders is a radical, anti-family "Condom Queen," the White House and numerous health groups have mounted a full court press, hoping to head off the kind of opposition that derailed the controversial Lani Guinier nomination last month.

Dr. Elders, the outspoken Arkansas health chief who has championed school-based health clinics, availability of contraceptives in schools, sex education beginning in kindergarten and abortion rights, is scheduled to go before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee for her confirmation hearing Friday.

Although her nomination is expected to be approved by the committee, the 59-year-old pediatrician could face broader opposition from conservatives once the vote reaches the Senate floor.

Administration officials said yesterday that they didn't anticipate running into trouble with the confirmation, but were still taking no chances with a public official known to make sparks fly with her blunt talk and controversial ideas.

Sending a message that the administration intends to stand behind and fight for this nominee, Vice President Al Gore, chief of staff Thomas M. "Mack" McLarty and other administration officials introduced Dr. Elders yesterday to representatives from about 75 organizations supporting her nomination at the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House.

"We wanted to touch base with them and assure them that Vice President Gore and President Clinton are four-square behind Joycelyn Elders," said Avis Lavelle, assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Last week, several conservative groups, including the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, the Christian Coalition and the Eagle Forum, held a news conference on Capitol Hill to denounce Dr. Elders as a "radical" who "preaches that teen-agers should have a love affair with a condom."

They have charged that, under her tenure as health chief in Arkansas, the teen pregnancy rate rose dramatically. In fact, the Arkansas rate has mirrored an escalating national rate.

Responding to the conservatives' charges, a handful of Dr. Elders' supporters held a news conference yesterday -- at which the nominee made a brief appearance but didn't speak -- to sing her praises as "the first lady of public health" and defend her Arkansas record.

They said they were confident Dr. Elders "will not be another Lani Guinier," a reference to Mr. Clinton's withdrawal of Ms. Guinier to head

the Justice Department's civil rights division last month in the face of mounting conservative opposition.

"There is no comparison whatsoever," said Arthur J. Kropp, president of the liberal People for the American Way. "It's night and day. You can hear it in the voices of the administration officials who spoke today. There was no equivocation. Vice President Gore, with real emotion, [said] they will go to the ends of the earth for this nomination."

One difference is that Mr. Clinton, who appointed Dr. Elders to be director of the Arkansas Department of Health in 1987, has had a close working relationship and friendship with his fellow native Arkansan.

Yesterday's show of force capped letter-writing campaigns and other lobbying efforts by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Education Association and nearly 150 other health, religious, education, civil rights, women's and children's groups that have publicly supported Dr. Elders.

Dr. Elders spent yesterday making courtesy calls to members of the Labor and Human Resources committee, meeting with Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, among others.

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