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Cruising with Lazarus
An Ode to Colin Powell and His Terrific Stance on AIDS

By David Salyer

May 2002

Thanks to my ninth grade civics class, I know what the U.S. Secretary of State does, or is supposed to do. Our last Secretary of State, the one appointed by Bill Clinton, was Madeleine K. Albright. I remember that Albright traveled all over the world, showing up wherever world leaders were negotiating peace, signing pacts or boasting about their nuclear arms. The Secretary of State sometimes acts like a U.S. ambassador, although more cynical observers consider the occupant of that post simply an international busybody.

Albright was the first female Secretary of State and the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government. By most objective accounts, Madeleine Albright was a savvy, knowledgeable, occasionally effective Secretary of State. She remains one of the least-maligned members of the former Clinton administration. America's new ambassador, um, I mean Secretary of State, is Colin Powell. He is the only thing I like about the current Bush administration.

Like Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell's appointment is historic. After the Clinton administration appointed the first female U.S. Secretary of State, President George W. Bush made Powell the first African-American Secretary of State. Thus, Powell becomes the highest-ranking African-American in our nation's history. During the 1991 Gulf War (the one promulgated by the original George Bush), Powell was our military's top uniformed commander, serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He rose to national prominence largely due to his televised daily press briefings. His calm, reassuring nature made him a personality Americans came to trust and respect.

Colin Luther Powell was born in Harlem, New York in 1937 and raised in the South Bronx by his parents, who emigrated from Jamaica. He has a Master of Business Administration from George Washington University and was a professional soldier for 35 years, culminating in his last assignment, from 1989 to 1993, as the twelfth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the Department of Defense. During this time he oversaw 28 military and political crises, including Operation Desert Storm in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. General Powell is the recipient of numerous U.S. military awards and decorations including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Army Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Soldier's Medal, Bronze Star Medal, and the Purple Heart. Additionally, he has written a best-selling autobiography, My American Journey, and serves as Chairman of America's Promise -- the Alliance for Youth, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of the children of America. He and his wife Alma have three grown children and two grandchildren.

As Secretary of State, some of Colin Powell's duties include serving as the President's principal adviser on U.S. foreign policy, conducting negotiations relating to U.S. foreign affairs, and negotiating all treaties with foreign governments. Frankly, I wish he were President of the United States right now, because I happen to think he's a helluva lot more qualified than the doodle-brained action figure currently occupying the White House. For those of you who think I just don't like Republicans (I got your e-mail; thanks for writing), Colin Powell is the exception to that rule. He is a Republican. And when it comes to HIV/AIDS issues, he is arguably the only Republican with a clue.

In April of 2001, Powell appeared on PBS "Newshour" and addressed the subject of AIDS forthright: "You can call it a national security issue; you can call it a pandemic; you can call it a destroyer of families and cultures. It is every bit that serious. Twenty-five to thirty million people are at risk of dying. And what we need is a full-scale assault coming from not just the United States but from the rest of the world to deal with this. And it has to have several aspects to it. It has to be, first, prevention and that's mostly educating people how to protect themselves and how to get treatment when they need it; secondly, treatment, doing all we can to get the price of the treatment down; and then third, constantly looking for the cure for this disease. But prevention, I think, is the most important part of it."

In a United Nations General Assembly Address barely two months later (June 2001), Powell stated that he knows "no enemy in war more insidious than AIDS." "This is not the Middle Ages," he continued. "We know that a virus causes AIDS -- and we know how to prevent its spread." The Secretary of State has even put the pandemic in security terms by saying that "AIDS poses a clear and present danger to the world." This guy gets the gravity of the situation. He was present when the United Nations passed a resolution establishing a global AIDS fund, and wanted to increase the Bush administration's $200 million pledge. He encourages the use of prevention methods besides abstinence and urged U.S. pharmaceutical firms to charitably contribute medications.

In February of this year, the Secretary of State participated in an MTV special entitled "Be Heard: An MTV Global Discussion With Colin Powell." Broadcast globally, young people around the world were able to ask him questions about world events. When asked about AIDS, Powell had this to say: "...In my own judgment, condoms are a way to prevent infection, and therefore, I not only support their use, I encourage their use among people who are sexually active and need to protect themselves. I think it's important for young people especially to protect themselves from the possibility of acquiring any sexually transmitted disease, but especially to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS, which is a plague that is upon the face of the earth."

Those words alone would have been enough to raise eyebrows among his conservative colleagues, but Powell had more to say: "And this is especially the case in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Caribbean, and increasingly a problem in other parts of the world. It was a major American problem and still is. But we have gotten more control over it. But now it is raging out of control in some parts of Africa, Caribbean, elsewhere -- China, India -- all of these nations will be touched by it, and it is important that the whole international community come together, speak candidly about it, forget about taboos, forget about conservative ideas with respect to what you should tell young people about it. It's the lives of young people that are put at risk by unsafe sex, and therefore protect yourself."

It takes a lot of courage for a 64-year-old African-American in the very white, uptight Bush Administration to politely circumvent the president's abstinence policy and publicly, even globally, urge sexually active teenagers and young adults to use condoms. In the absence of real leadership regarding HIV/AIDS, Powell has single-handedly resurrected the subject at the national level. Even more hopeful, he seems willing and able to focus attention and energy on coordinating AIDS strategies on a global scale, something Bill Clinton was unable to do in two full terms as president.

Colin Powell's comments about condoms followed Bush's announcement that he will seek a $33 million increase for abstinence-only education programs in his 2003 budget. These abstinence-only education programs prohibit discussion of birth control, condoms, and other family planning devices effective for preventing sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. To qualify for funds, public schools, the YMCA, faith-based organizations, health departments, hospitals and community service agencies must offer programs with the exclusive purpose of "teaching the social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity" and that "sexual activity outside of ... marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."

Maybe Colin Powell saw the results of a 1999 national poll in which 70% of the respondents opposed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that prohibit the teaching of condom use and contraception. (Poll on America's Attitudes toward Sexuality Education; Hickman-Brown Research, 1999.) Or perhaps he read the 1997 National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy study concluding "there does not currently exist any scientifically credible, published research showing abstinence-only programs delay or reduce sexual activity." Possibly he bumped into someone from a 1997 panel convened by the National Institutes of Health who quoted their findings: "abstinence-only programs cannot be justified in the face of effective programs and given the fact that we face an international emergency in the AIDS epidemic." Then again, maybe Colin Powell simply realizes that abstinence-only programs constitute government-sponsored censorship, denying all opportunities for comprehensive sexuality education.

United States presidents routinely declare war -- on poverty, drugs, Iraq, terrorism -- and yet not one has felt compelled to launch a similar crusade against HIV/AIDS. The global AIDS crisis claimed three million lives in 2001, and all we got from a Bush spokesman is flatulent statements like, "The president continues to believe that abstinence and abstinence education is the most effective way to prevent AIDS, to prevent unwanted pregnancy."

I surely do whine a lot about George W. Bush's lack of vision, his inarticulate discourse and his class-president style approach to complex issues, but ultimately it's his own inferiority that allows an intelligent, watchful individual like Colin Powell to act as a free agent within that administration. In fact, when it comes to HIV and AIDS, he is the sole voice of clarity and reason in an administration otherwise devoted to the puritanical notion that abstinence from sex will solve the worldwide AIDS pandemic. Colin Powell knows better.

Got a comment? Write to David at cubscout@mindspring.com.




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