"The last straw is an awesome thing," wrote columnist Deborah Mathis in the Arkansas Times in December. "So small. Seemingly so insignificant. Yet powerful enough to topple careers, ruin lives and break the camel's back. Trent Lott can now attest to the power of the last straw."
I felt a close kinship to the feelings of Sen. Lott as I read this column and can also testify that a few words taken out of the contextual environment in which they were spoken can be used by the powers-that-be as the last straw. A piece of straw becomes a whipping rod when it serves as an opportunistic purpose for people to do what they wanted to do anyway. Trent Lott and I have this much in common.
In 1994, I gave a speech at the World AIDS Day conference at the U.N. Afterward, during a panel discussion a psychiatrist asked me a question. The context was the necessity of breaking down taboos against talking about sex in order to counter the epidemic. The psychiatrist's subject was whether alternative methods of sexual release might be encouraged to inhibit the spread of the disease. "What do you think are the prospects for a discussion and promotion of masturbation?" he asked.
I told him the ABCD's of HIV/AIDS prevention: Abstinence, Be faithful, Condom use, and Do other things. I said I was a strong advocate of comprehensive health education that was age-appropriate and complete, that children had to be taught all the things that they needed to know to be sexually healthy. I told him that masturbation is a normal part of human sexuality, never got anyone pregnant, never caused anyone to go blind, never caused anyone to go crazy, and with self stimulation, you are always having sex with someone you love.
This was World AIDS Day at the UN, and the room was filled with media people. None of them asked about the remark. It was so innocuous that nobody seemed to notice it. The next day neither the newspapers nor the TV reported anything about it; however, 10 days later my world was turned upside-down when my remarks were reported in the national media.
Later, I received a call from Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala and the president's chief of staff, Leon Panetta, asking for my resignation, stating that those remarks were not acceptable and they wanted to have my resignation by 2:30 that day. I said, "I am not resigning unless the president asks for my resignation." President Clinton and I had stood side by side in some pretty rough fights. As far as I knew there had never been any rumors that he was considering asking me to leave. So I wasn't really expecting Clinton to call. But about an hour later he did call.
"Yes, sir." I said.
"Joycelyn, I'm sorry this is all happening. But I hear there are all these remarks going on, and we can't have them. I want you to get your resignation into Panetta's office this afternoon."
"Mr. President? Do you know what I said?"
"Yes, they told me. I'm sorry, we've just got so many things, and I'm sorry."
And I said, "Well, thank you, Mr. President."
I was asked to resign as surgeon general. Trent Lott was asked to resign as the majority leader.
We will never know the true motives of those who blew Trent Lott's few words at Strom Thurmond's party out of proportion. Therein lies the rub. The secrecy. The deceit. These are the minefields where angels fear to tread.
I am not saying that Trent Lott is an angel. As a strong, lifelong Democrat, I never considered his far-right agenda to be Divinely inspired. But I believe that in a political environment of darkness and deception, certain comments at specific times ignite great controversy.
Trent Lott has always been a gentleman and a politician as far as I am concerned. He has been willing to speak his mind. Lott reflects the sentiment of many people in the country. It is the reluctance to share our sentiments that creates the misunderstandings that keep us apart. I have always encouraged greater dialogue over issues that matter, but our current political environment discourages open discussion. Lott was removed on the basis of his off-the-cuff remark. The Senate's decision to fire him as majority leader provides further evidence that we, as a people, still prefer to shoot first and then never ask questions.
The senator has been in Washington, D.C., much longer than I was there, and I'm sure he knew that we couldn't speak our true feelings near those in power for fear of being destroyed. As long as we remain a country where people are afraid to express their real feelings, we can never be free. Some of the reasons our country remains so divided along racial, ethnic, gender and class lines are that people are afraid of speaking out for fear of a "misspeak." We can't discuss race for fear of being called a "racist." We can't discuss drug policy for fear of being called "soft on drugs." We can't discuss sexuality issues for fear of relating to gay, lesbian or feminist issues. So we, in fact, are not free.
Lott was a congressional aide for several years, a congressman from Mississippi for several years, a senator for many years and twice elected majority leader. Anyone in America and especially the Republican Caucus who pretends to be shocked over this recent remark has obviously been asleep or vacationing outside the country for the last 30 years. We must allow open and honest discussions. We need to look at the voting records of the people chosen to represent us, and not wait to react when a word or phrase is taken out of context. We can't solve our differences until we understand the thoughts and feelings of those who believe differently.
The experience that Lott and I shared perpetuates the destructive myth that silence is golden. Lott's resignation is another negative example that teaches future leaders that it is better to sit quietly on the sidelines than to risk public reprimand for speaking out.
Dr. Joycelyn Elders is a professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas Medical School.
Very courageous of her to put this in print--and fair-minded of you all to print it.