White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta says the "message" of the firing of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders for her remark that masturbation could be discussed in schools is, "Don't say things the president does not agree with." He also said Dr. Elders would have been fired for doing this "six months ago, eight months ago, nine months ago; I guarantee you."
Maybe, but in the past nine months she has said, among other impolitic things, that she didn't think selling a small amount of cocaine was a crime, and for such she drew only private rebukes. (Twelve months ago she called legalization of street drugs a way to reduce street crime.) The real "message" of the firing seems to derive from the fact that Newt Gingrich said a few days before the firing that he assumed President Clinton kept her in her job because he "shared her values." He meant specifically her values concerning drugs, but, by implication also those on condoms in school, homosexuality, abortion and so forth.
Since the Republican triumph on Election Day, the president has been moving right: talking about cutting taxes on the middle class, increasing defense spending and working toward a balanced budget. It's voodoo economics, Democratic style, whose appeal to moderate and conservative voters the president doesn't want canceled out by the sort of cultural liberalism Dr. Elders champions.
Dr. Elders had been rebuked and "cautioned" to be careful in her remarks more than once in recent months, as she should have been. Maybe she thought it was a case of a president and his top aides crying wolf. Since she got away with suggesting that a good way to fight crime was legalizing drugs, she probably thought she could get away with anything. But if she had any political instincts and had been paying attention to her president since Nov. 8, she would have known that now they really mean it.
On a personal level, it is sad to see another Arkansas casualty. Her son is in prison on a drug charge, serving a sentence perhaps made more severe because of her high profile, and she has been ridiculed by her enemies and fired by her president. The lengthening list of friends of Bill who have suffered varying degrees of embarrassment and worse -- Vincent Foster, William Kennedy, Thomas "Mack" McLarty, David Watkins, Webster Hubbell -- now includes Joycelyn Elders.