12 Jan 1997 This New Crusade Would Help Mrs. Clinton Regain Her Popularity
Bill Clinton’s recital of the oath of office at noon January 20 marks more than just the opportunity for a fresh start for the president. It also signifies the possibility of a new beginning for the first lady.
According to the hot-off-the-presses memoir by former presidential advisor Dick Morris, the Clintons will spend their second term in the White House conscious of securing their place in history. Mrs. Clinton must be thinking that she doesn’t want her second four years in the White House to be anything like the first: marked by accusations of scandal and criticism for proposing an unpopular health care reform plan.
If so, there is an idea Mrs. Clinton should consider: leading a crusade in the second term to warn Americans, particularly young adults and adolescents, about the dangers of sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs).
The idea of a First Lady-led crusade against STDs is not as distasteful as it first appears. A crusade against STDs would be valuable politically for the Clinton Administration. Unlike most ventures with which the First Lady was associated in the first term, it is devoid of political risk. Furthermore, because Mrs. Clinton’s views on this issue offend neither conservatives nor liberals (in interviews and in her book It Takes a Village Mrs. Clinton has advocated abstinence for young people until at least the age of 21 in part to avoid disease), a crusade could help her husband be seen, as is his wish, as a political centrist.
A crusade against STDs would also be personally satisfying for the First Lady, who has long indicated a preference for work that helps young people. As the first baby boomer First Lady she also no doubt would achieve some satisfaction from adopting a topic that would have been unthinkable for the First Lady when she was growing up. As a feminist, she would appreciate being able to slow the spread of diseases to which women are nearly twice as susceptible as men. And her place in history would reap the benefit of the American people’s appreciation for her work in this sensitive but critical area, just as Betty Ford’s popularity soared when she tackled breast cancer publicly — a topic until then never mentioned by a President’s wife.
But, most important, young Americans would benefit greatly from her effort. Sexually-transmitted diseases, or STDs, are an epidemic in this country. According to Dr. Bernadine Healy, former director of the National Insitutes of Health, chlamydia, a disease that causes miscarriage, pain and is a causative or contributing factor in up to 75% of all cases of infertility caused by scarred or black fallopian tubes, affected from 3-5 million Americans in 1995. That same year human papilloma virus, or HPV, a little-known virus that causes cancers of the cervix, vulva, penis and anus, as well as respiratory diseases in the infants of mothers with the disease, newly infected 500,000-1 million Americans. In 1995 there were a half million new cases of herpes simplex (which causes the death of 400-1,000 babies born to mothers with the disease each year); 200,000-300,000 new cases of Hepatitis B (which kills about 6,000 Americans per year ); a million new cases of gonorrhea, which causes infertility and occasionally meningitis or endocarditis (infections of the lining of the brain and heart, respectively); a hundred thousand new cases of syphilis, which causes death if untreated and causes 40% of infected pregnant women to lose their babies, and a million new cases of pelvic inflammatory disease in women, which will lead to permanent infertility in 10-20% of them. And, of course, there is AIDS.
Should she undertake it, Mrs. Clinton’s new effort need not be difficult. Under the welfare reform bill passed by Congress last year and signed by the President the Department of Health and Human Services has been allocated an additional $50 million (for a total of budget of $87 million) annually for sexual abstinence education. These are funds Mrs. Clinton, in concert with her long-time friend and associate, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, can instantly tap to fund public service announcements, brochures, videos and other materials necessary to an educational campaign. Nor need this effort be controversial: unlike Food and Drug Administrator David Kessler’s crusade against tobacco in President Clinton’s first term, in which he proposed so many new regulations of dubious constitutionality that even many non-smokers and Clinton allies in Congress objected, the area of sexually-transmitted disease is not one that easily lends itself to controversial new federal regulations.
In many ways Mrs. Clinton had a beleaguered first term as First Lady. By adopting a educational crusade against STDs as the focus of her second four years in the White House, Mrs. Clinton could do a tremendous positive service for the American people by reducing death, infertility and misery while taking a giant step forward in securing for herself a positive place in history.
Amy Moritz Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research.