Foster Follies

By Turque, Bill; Cohn, Bob | Newsweek, February 20, 1995 | Go to article overview

Foster Follies


Turque, Bill, Cohn, Bob, Newsweek


ROBERT BORK, JOHN TOWER, CLARENCE Thomas, Zod Baird, Lani Guinier. They belong to a special branch of Washingtonology: the presidential appointment turned fiasco. Henry Foster, President Bill Clinton's nominee for surgeon general, joined the list last week. Every troubled nomination comes with its own blend of miscommunication, miscalculation, cynicism and ideological strife. In the end, Foster's merits as a physician and educator were unfairly eclipsed by the White House's inept handling of a politically incendiary issue -- abortion. Here's the diary of a Washington disaster:

It began, like most Washington tales, with a leak. On Jan. 27, Foster's name surfaced in The Washington Post as a "leading contender" to replace Joycelyn Elders, fired by Clinton last December for musing publicly about the virtues of teaching masturbation to schoolchildren. A soft-spoken obstetrician-gynecologist and acting director of Nashville's Meharry Medical College, Foster looked like a sure thing politically: an African-American who stressed abstinence to teenagers in a program to discourage pregnancy. His work earned him recognition in 1991 as one of President George Bush's "Thousand Points of Light."

Foster's three decades as a practicing gynecologist should have been a warning to the White House. It was to Kansas Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, a pro-choice Republican experienced in the treacherous crosscurrents of abortion politics. After learning of Foster's impending nomination from an administration official at the jan. 28 White House welfare summit, Kassebaum, who chairs the Labor and Human Resources Committee that will hold confirmation hearings, quickly asked how many abortions Foster had performed. The official didn't know, but promised to get back to her.

The task of vetting Foster fell to the White House Counsel's Office. With lawyers in charge, the inquiry never focused on a political strategy to deal with a contentious issue. Instead, a White House attorney named Marvin Krislov pursued narrow legalisms, like how many abortions Foster performed, if any, before the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalized the procedure.

In retrospect, the White House made two blunders. It overestimated the appeal of Foster's teen-abstinence message and underestimated the willingness of congressional Republicans, preoccupied by budget issues, to engage over abortion. "They didn't realize that anytime this issue comes up, it's a battle," says a lobbyist for a prochoice group. "You don't just slip it through like a fix in an appropriations bill."

The White House had help in bungling the nomination. Aides to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala (the surgeon general works for the HHS) held their own vetting sessions with Foster. Asked how many abortions he'd performed, Foster recalled instead one especially troubling procedure, involving a woman who was HIV-positive. Incredibly, the HHS staff construed this to mean that he had done just one abortion. Aides passed their findings on to Shalala, who told Kassebaum.

Oblivious to the misinformation it had circulated, the administration pressed ahead and unveiled Foster. Minutes after Clinton and Shalala introduced him in an Oval Office session on Feb. 2, reporters jumped on the abortion issue. Now it was Press Secretary Mike McCurry's turn to shrug his shoulders. He said he didn't know how many abortions Foster had performed, but would try to find out. On Capitol Hill, cautious Republican support for Foster began to crumble. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said Foster "sounded like a good replacement" for Elders. When told that the nominee was a supporter of abortion services, Dole smiled and said, "Well, I think I'll leave."

The next day the HHS staff grilled Foster and issued a statement over his name attempting to clarify the abortion question. But the wording was Clintonesque -- technically accurate but with vague, coded qualifications. In 30 years as a "private" physician, he said, "I believed that I performed fewer than a dozen pregnancy terminations. …

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