Elders' forthrightness unusual in Washington



WASHINGTON -- It was no surprise when President Clinton said the other day that he is "foursquare" behind Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders although he disagrees with her on legalizing drugs. After throwing Lani Guinier over the side last spring, the president could hardly come down hard on another black woman appointee.

Clinton's explanation for his tolerant attitude toward Elders was intriguing, however, as a credo that all administrations might try to follow. "When you have someone who is outspoken and energetic like she is," the president said, "there are going to be times when she'll be outspoken and energetic in a way that I don't necessarily agree with."

That is not the way things usually work in Washington. On the contrary, anything that suggests some appointed official has his or her "own agenda" is verboten. Declaration of views contrary to those held in the White House is a cardinal sin, apparently because someone might get the idea that the president is less than the ultimate source of wisdom on all questions. Thus, for example, some White House advisers were miffed when Attorney General Janet Reno questioned the efficacy of minimum sentences for crimes and thus expressed doubts not shared by Clinton.

But, as he suggested in his defense of Elders, if a president appoints people who are bright and accomplished, they are not always going to agree on every issue. And if it is true that no president can have his underlings defying him regularly on major policy questions, neither should the president or his staff be overly concerned if some little hint of disagreements slips out every once in a while.

The standard of political correctness in Washington is less flexible than that attitude might suggest, however, as the Elders episode illustrates.

First, the surgeon general did not set out to defy or contradict the president who appointed her. Nor did she endorse the idea of legalizing drugs. When asked a question at the end of a speech at the National Press Club, this is what she said:

"I do feel that we would markedly reduce our crime rate if drugs were legalized. But I don't know all the ramifications of this and I do feel that we need some studies."

If you listened to the political reaction, you would imagine she had committed treason rather than saying simply that a controversial idea was worth studying. Rep. Charles Rangel, a liberal New York Democrat whose prime concern is the drug issue, described himself as "shocked." Sen. Don Nickles, a conservative Oklahoma Republican, was so apoplectic he demanded that Elders be fired. The Christian Coalition weighed in with a predictable denunciation.

To some degree, this is a reaction that seems peculiar to the notion of legalizing drugs. After Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore, a former prosecutor, also said a few years ago that the idea was worth study, that became the position that identified him in the minds of many in the political community. If anyone suggested Schmoke might have a bright future in national politics, someone else would wonder about "that legalizing drugs thing."

This has always been true with the drug issue. Almost 30 years ago, a Democratic candidate for governor of New York, District Attorney Frank O'Connor of Queens, mused aloud about whether it might be wise to decriminalize the use of marijuana to lessen the burden on law enforcement in dealing with a minor offense. O'Connor had been running a surprisingly close race against Republican Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller but once he raised the marijuana issue, he was cooked.

The highly restricted legalization of marijuana as anti-nausea agent in cancer patients took years to get through the bureaucracy. The legalization of heroin as a drug for treatment of intractable pain never made it, raising the question of whether someone feared terminally ill patients becoming addicts.

But the hard truth is that Washington's brand of political correctness is not limited to the drug issue. In the White House, any White House, the first requirement is toeing the line and not being a "distraction" from the president. It is understandable but nonetheless a formula for some pretty dull people quite unlike Joycelyn Elders.

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