Someone should give Gen. Colin Powell another bronze star. Last week the secretary of state went on MTV and committed an unabashed act of heroism. He threw himself into the debate over condom use as a way to fight AIDS – and rounds of flak have been flying at his head ever since.
The hostilities began after a young woman from Italy asked him on the show what he thought about condom use in light of the AIDS epidemic. Now, anyone who has climbed as far up the ladder in Washington as Powell knows what to do in this situation: Cover your ears and run, before you get drawn into the wacky world of AIDS politics. But Powell didn’t flinch.
Instead, he gave an answer that was as honest as it was pragmatic. “I believe condoms are part of the solution to the HIV/AIDS crisis,” he said, “and I encourage their use by our young people who are sexually active.”
Ka-bloooey! Family Research Council President Kenneth Connor told a reporter that “Secretary Powell’s remarks are reckless and irresponsible.” James Dobson, who runs an outfit called Focus on the Family, said, “Colin Powell is secretary of state, not the secretary of health. He is talking about a subject he doesn’t understand.”
Meanwhile, conservative activist Gary Bauer publicly advised Powell to sit down with his boss, President George W. Bush, “and get a briefing on the fact that he’s in an administration that is stressing abstinence rather than condoms.”
But is Bauer right about this? On the AIDS issue, the Bush White House has shown a talent for slick contortions that could put the master of the genre – Bill Clinton – to shame.
On the one hand, the Bush White House has made clear its intention to appoint Dr. Tom Coburn – a former Oklahoma congressman and an indefatigable evangelist for abstinence instead of condoms – to co-chair the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS.
Most AIDS activists are duly outraged.
On the other hand, the White House didn’t try to distance itself from Powell’s MTV comments. In fact, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush’s budget includes money for programs that pitch abstinence as well as sex-education classes that countenance condom discussions.
This was enough to infuriate Connor, who said in the Research Council’s Washington Update that Fleischer’s remarks were inconsistent with Bush’s actions to bolster abstinence-only education. As far as the council is concerned, the White House now thinks condoms are a “safe sex” method, Connor huffed.
The uproar is not just absurd, it is dangerous.
Nobody – not AIDS activists, not the nation’s public health establishment and I’m sure not Colin Powell himself – will tell you that condoms are a 100-percent foolproof way to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
They are not. But that’s not what Powell said on MTV. He called them “part of the solution.” And he said sexually active young people should use them. He didn’t go on MTV to thump the tub for licentiousness, nor did he sneer at the idea of abstinence. He just strongly implied that – if you’re going to have sex in the age of AIDS – you’re infinitely better off with a condom.
Like it or not, this is the unvarnished truth.
But here’s the awful part as this skirmish in the Great American Culture War plays itself out: The sound and fury erode prevention efforts – at a time when we need them more than ever.
Jeffrey Reynolds of the Long Island Association for AIDS Care says that in any given month, more than 50 percent of that organization’s clients are now failing with their regimens of AIDS wonder drugs. Though combination therapy and protease inhibitors slow the progression of HIV, they can lose their effectiveness or become toxic over time.
The Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City reports a similar phenomenon. About 30 percent of its clients are out of options, according to David Evans, GMHC’s director of treatment education. The numbers are beginning to increase, he says.
Even as death rates free-fell after the arrival of combination therapy, the feds never managed to develop strong AIDS prevention programs. Too many people wanted to bring their own private passions to the issue. As a result, HIV infection rates have remained steady.
And now, someday very soon, we may discover the limits of HIV drug therapy. All the fuss over Powell’s remarks tells me that we won’t be any more prepared to meet the new crisis than we were when the last one struck.