A Surgeon General's Warnings
To give some balance here, who stuck by you throughout the various controversies?
Popular support is what allowed me to survive politically. It was fascinating to watch from where I sat, because I could see the administration conservatives gathering forces, getting ready to strike. But just when they thought they had enough ammunition, my personal popularity would edge up a bit.
As surgeon general I always felt general approval and appreciation from the public. The issues I tended to address were issues that affect individual people, and the public heard them discussed in a frank, honest way. The mailroom of the White House is the pulse of the nation. The next best mailroom was mine. Only about one in a hundred letters took me to task; most were positive.
I also got some supportive letters from unexpected sources. For example, I must have gotten 20 letters from Southern Baptist ministers. That denomination was one of the groups I interviewed before writing the aids report commissioned by the President in 1986. I've never seen such babes in the woods. They had never heard of the kinds of sexual practices I was talking about.
One day in my office I very gently tried to explain what the problems were, to tell them what bathhouse sex was like, for example. They didn't know whether to scream and run, or to cry, or to bury their faces.
But they came around, and proved very supportive. I said, If you are so worried about your kids getting sex education—and I understand why you would be—why can't you, a denominational of 26 million people, write your own curriculum? Nine months later they invited me down to talk about aids, and to help launch that curriculum.
Some of the prolife people have said you've really missed the influence of Francis Schaeffer in the last few years. If he had been alive during your term, do you think he would have understood your various decisions?
I think so. I had been his son Franky's doctor, so I knew the family well. Francis was a very open-minded guy, and I loved to talk things out with him. I remember a call from the Mayo Clinic when we discussed his cancer and the wonderful opportunities he was having in Rochester. I said, "Francis, isn't it remarkable that in the sovereignty of God, before the foundation of the world, when God planned for you to come down with lymphosarcoma, he planned that it would take place in the Mayo Clinic, in order that you, in distress, could witness there to your faith in Christ?" He nearly exploded, telling me it was Satan, not God, who had sent the cancer. I said, "Well, Francis, you're just mixed up on one thing, and that is that God controls Satan, too."
I believe Francis would have understood me. I should say, though, that I had a phone call from a very distressed Edith Schaeffer in the midst of the abortion controversy. She asked if I had changed my position on abortion, and I assured her I had not.
Do you look back on the Whatever Happened film and lecture series with pride?
Yes, I do. There are certain conversations I expect to take place everywhere I go. Someone will come up to me and tell me I operated on them when they were three days old. Someone else will come up and say, I owe you a debt of gratitude—I was never concerned about human-life issues until I heard you speak with Francis Schaeffer. That's important to me, because the lecture series was a kind of sacrifice: after that 18 months I never went back to the intensity of surgery that I had had before.