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Straight talk 

Dr. Joycelyn Elders, a living monument to the black experience in Arkansas, may be retired, but she’s not retiring about the issues that made her a controversial surgeon general.

click to enlarge NOT WORRIED ABOUT APPEARANCES: Elders on Bill Maher's comedy show.
  • NOT WORRIED ABOUT APPEARANCES: Elders on Bill Maher's comedy show.

Fourteen years after President Bill Clinton fired her as surgeon general of the United States for uttering one final impolitic remark, Dr. Joycelyn Elders is long into retirement, but hers is not a repose that the meek would envy or her many old critics would cheer.

And if you were wondering, no, she never shut up or took up mincing words.

Straight talk made Joycelyn Elders famous, earned her a legion of enemies and finally got her fired, but she does not wish that she had substituted a single euphemism for any of it, not even her mention of masturbation at a world AIDS conference at the United Nations in December 1994 that brought an angry telephone call from Clinton demanding her immediate resignation.

She returned to her teaching and clinical career at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and retired there in 1998, but retirement may not be an apt word for it. Not counting talks to groups around Arkansas, Dr. Elders made more than 50 speeches in 20 states last year, which was well off the pace of even her retirement years and a tacit acknowledgement that, at 75, she's tapering off a bit. Although no longer engaged in clinical or laboratory work, she managed the past four years to publish seven articles in national medical journals or books. She is on nine boards, eight outside Arkansas and the other at her alma mater, Philander Smith College.

She still carries the title professor emeritus of pediatrics at UAMS but she works now from the study of the ranch-style home south of Little Rock that she and her husband, the legendary basketball coach Oliver Elders, bought in 1987. The terrain but not the culture would have reminded her then of the piney woods of Howard County, where she grew up in a three-room sharecropper's cabin with seven younger brothers and sisters under conditions that offered slim prospects for even a way out of the cotton patch much less an eminent career in science.

The subjects of her speeches and papers are mostly but not altogether those that lifted her from relative obscurity as a medical scientist and public health administrator 20 years ago to be the nation's top physician, chief health educator, children's tribune and public scold. The subjects are human sexuality and its effect on health and poverty.

You would think that getting fired from the biggest job you ever had by the president of the United States and having it reported on the front pages of newspapers across the country would hang like doom over her existence but she speaks of it cheerfully, even proudly. For that humiliation she harbors no anger for Clinton.

“I never thought at all that Bill Clinton was the reason I was leaving Washington,” she said the other day. It occurred at a particularly low point for Clinton and his administration. Republicans had swept the congressional elections a month earlier, he was largely blamed for it, and a New York Times poll showed that only 28 percent of the people trusted him on economic issues. The White House had gone into a defensive crouch when Dr. Elders went to New York on Dec. 1, 1994, to address a global HIV-AIDS conference at the United Nations.

Dr. Elders was already a lightning rod for the administration owing to her defense of abortion and her advocacy of sex education and contraception. Because she said youngsters should be taught to use condoms to prevent pregnancy and AIDS, conservative groups labeled her “the condom queen.”

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