PUBLIC OFFICIALS are allowed to tell only three truths in a career, and it was the bad luck, or if you will the bad judgment, of Dr. Joycelyn Elders to use up her allotment in little more than a year as U.S. surgeon general.
An extraordinarily accomplished woman, Dr. Elders nonetheless was caught in her third truth last week, forcing President Clinton, who has the grit of Vaseline in these matters, to throw her to the GOP lynch mob that has been hounding her from the start -- before it could catch up with him, too.
In her ultimate lapse, Dr. Elders was accused of saying children should be taught to masturbate.
First, the charge was iffy on its face. As every physician knows, they don't need to be taught. They teach themselves.
Second, let's, as they say, go to the videotape. It is clear Dr. Elders said no such thing.
In response to a question about whether masturbation should be touted as one answer to AIDS, the surgeon general said only that information about it, as part of human sexuality, should be included in sex education.
That's obviously so, but Dr. Elders' ever-eager attackers distorted her commonplace into an outrage. No matter. It was a truth anyway and counted.
This reminds one of the time Dr. Elders said the Catholic Church is a "celibate male hierarchy."
That was quickly tagged as anti-Catholic bigotry. Presumably Dr. Elders would have known better if she'd just checked with all the women priests who are working so hard to save John Paul's papacy from the challenge to his re-election. Most of their husbands would have backed them up on that, too.
All of this was piled atop Dr. Elders' seminal mistake in saying that the legalization of drugs probably ought to be studied.
Just recently, a summit of Western Hemisphere leaders has concluded that the massively pricey effort to end the drug trade has flopped. Independent studies have found pretty much the same about U.S. drug suppression at home, too.
Legalization, or even decriminalization, might not be the answer, but under the circumstances, it is virtually self-evident that the options at least should be studied.
The political cutthroats who were out for Dr. Elders from the beginning ridiculed her as the "condom queen" for saying essentially the same things that got her predecessor, C. Everett Koop, praised for boldness.
Some might suspect that the explanation for the different characterizations might lie somewhere in the fact that Dr. Koop is a Republican white male and Dr. Elders a Democratic black female, but it no doubt would be unworthy to think so.
In today's politically supercharged Washington, the objective is not enlightenment but advantage, and a gaffe is not a notorious error but an awkward truth.
Where only politics counts, the impolitic have no standing. The big loser, of course, is the public, denied honest and open discussion and offered in its place only banality policed by demagogy.
Tom Teepen is national correspondent of Cox Newspapers.