Press Briefing by Chief of Staff Leon Panetta
Mr. Panetta's Office
3:56 P.M. EST
MR. PANETTA: The President today asked for and received the resignation of Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the Surgeon General. You'll be given a statement by the President himself regarding that the key part of the statement is that Dr. Elders' public statements, reflecting differences with administration policy. And my own convictions have made it necessary for her to tender her resignation.
Obviously, the President is very grateful for her good work and her tireless efforts with regards to fighting AIDS, dealing with teenage pregnancies, dealing with children's health issues. But there have been too many areas in which the President does not agree with her views.
The last step came to our attention late yesterday. There was a statement made at the United Nations World AIDS Day Conference in which -- in response to a question, she stated that schools should consider teaching masturbation. The exact quote, in response to the question -- we have copies of it -- is that, "as per your specific question in regard to masturbation, I think that is something that is part of human sexuality, and it's a part of something that perhaps should be taught."
The President feels that's wrong, feels that it's not what schools are for, and it is not what the Surgeon General should say. And, therefore, although he regrets it, has requested and received her resignation. We were made aware of the statement last night, and I asked that it be checked out to confirm that, in fact, it had been done, and that was confirmed this morning -- told the President, and the President said, she must resign. And we now have her resignation.
Q: What was her response?
Q: Is that a quote, Leon -- "she must resign"?
Q: She said a number of things, as you pointed out, a number of statements that conflict with the President's views. Why is it that you wait until now to act? Why didn't you just act earlier?
MR. PANETTA: Well, there have been a number of statements where the President has indicated he disagreed with her views, and this is just one too many. We have, as you know, indicated that -- advised her not to make statements that were not in line with the President's position, and obviously when this statement came to our attention, it was just one too many.
Q: You inserted the word "schools" in what she said. I don't think the quote contains the word "schools," does it?
MR. PANETTA: Well, in the overall answer, which we'll give you, she talks about -- at present, in our schools it is very -- it is very incomplete -- she's talking about, I take it, sexual education, and it's very incomplete and only five percent of the schools have a comprehensive program. As per your specific question, in regard to masturbation, I think it's something mentioned --
Q: Oh, fine.
Q: Would she have been fired before the election?
Q: What was her reaction when she was asked for her resignation?
MR. PANETTA: She indicated that she would. The President talked to her and he received her resignation.
Q: Can you tell us the timing of that?
MR. PANETTA: Pardon me?
Q: His conversation with her -- can you tell us --
MR. PANETTA: Conversation today with the President was approximately about 1:00 p.m. -- between 1:00 p.m. and 1:30 p.m.
Q: And who had informed her? Did the President inform her himself, or had someone previously informed her?
MR. PANETTA: Dr. Shalala had a conversation with her, I had a conversation with her, but the President talked to her directly about resignation.
Q: You talk about this as a resignation; why isn't this a firing?
Q: Did you attempt to ask her whether she wanted to clarify or retract her remarks, or if that's what she meant to say?
MR. PANETTA: She admitted that the statements were what she had said, and these are not statements that you can --
Q: Leon, what message --
Q: Has any advice been given to the President that she is not helping the administration and that she ought to go?
MR. PANETTA: Pardon me?
Q: Has there been any other political advice -- has anyone else urged the President to fire her?
MR. PANETTA: Well, we've gotten lots of advice from a lot of different people, as you can imagine, since the election. But none of that relates to what the President's action was about today. The President has had a long relationship with her, has a great deal of respect for her work, but clearly has had disagreements with what she said.
Q: Did you hear about this from --
Q: Mr. Panetta, could you explain sir, exactly what -- I don't understand this, I guess. What did she say that was wrong? What do you find objectionable, since the schools do -- already do have sex education, what does the President find objectionable to teaching masturbation?
MR. PANETTA: I just -- the President thinks that this is not something schools should do, and it's not something that the Surgeon General should say.
Q: Leon, what message does this send, both to other officials in the administration, and also to the American public?
MR. PANETTA: Don't say things the President doesn't agree with.
Q: How about beyond that, for the country? Some people might see this as an effort to -- a new face on the administration.
MR. PANETTA: Well, I think it's important that -- obviously, it's important that the President's values and what he believes in are reflected, not only within this administration, but that they're clearly reflected to the country.
Q: Did you all hear about this from --
Q: What are some examples of previous things that conflicted with --
Q: What are some examples of previous statements that the President disagreed with that Dr. Elders has made?
MR. PANETTA: Well, there is a record of those statements, as all of you know. But some of them involved Catholics having a love affair with fetuses, comments about legalizing drugs, comments regarding teaching five-year-olds the use of condoms, and others.
Q: Well, this has been going on for years and years. This has been going on back when Clinton was still Governor -- she was making statements that he disagreed with. What changed the situation now? Is this --
MR. PANETTA: One too many.
Q: But why did he appoint her in the first place? He knew she had a history of this sort of thing. Why is it -- does he not consider it was a mistake to hire her in the first place?
MR. PANETTA: Well, I think the statement that the President will issue points to her ability and her commitment and the work that she has done. And he continues to have admiration for her work, but there is obviously serious disagreement with the statements that have been made and --
Q: In the interview she did with you that started all this, she said that she had been cautioned a number of times. Can you talk about who cautioned her, who told her --
MR. PANETTA: I think the President's had conversations with her, Secretary Shalala's had conversations with her.
Q: Have you, yourself?
MR. PANETTA: I had one conversation.
Q: Does it have anything to do with her son's conviction on drugs?
MR. PANETTA: No.
Q: If she hadn't resigned, would she have been fired?
MR. PANETTA: If she had not resigned, she would have been terminated.
Q: And when you quoted the President as saying "she must resign," were those his words, more or less, per se?
MR. PANETTA: The President said she must resign.
Q: Did she resist?
Q: How long was the conversation with her today?
MR. PANETTA: The conversation? I don't know. I don't know how long it was. The President spoke after his speech in Miami.
Q: Did she try to talk him out of it?
MR. PANETTA: I don't know.
Q: Do you know whether she stands by what she said. In other words, does she still think that masturbation is something that should be taught in schools, or does she think that perhaps she went too far -- from your conversation --
MR. PANETTA: I don't know. I had a very brief conversation with her, and in my conversation she did not defend her remarks.
Q: How long was your conversation with her?
Q: Does this have anything to do with the election results?
MR. PANETTA: This has everything to do with the statement she made and with the disagreements about her position.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 4:06 P.M. EST
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Chief of Staff Leon Panetta Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269664