Everybody lies about sex, a wise man once observed, and when “politically safe” becomes as rigid as “politically correct” you can get in trouble by not lying about it.
You could ask Colin Powell, the secretary of state. Answering a question with a reply that made clear he was offering only his personal opinion, he set off a controversy that is a first for a secretary of state. He shoulda stood in bed.
When a teen-age girl asked him, during the taping of a special for MTV, the teenybopper music channel, what he thinks about what the Roman Catholic Church thinks about condoms, Mr. Powell replied: “I respect the Holy Father, and the position of the church, but 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.” Mr. Powell, by the way, is a member of the Episcopal Church, which has a very different view of condoms, whether “sold for the prevention of disease only,” or for something else.
Consider the alternative answer, which, in certain circles, would have been politically safe: “I encourage people who are sexually active not to use condoms.” The logic in such a safe answer recalls the famous alibi of the man accused of smoking in bed and burning down the hotel: “No, sir, judge, I didn’t do it, that bed was on fire when I got into it.”
Mr. Powell did not say, as some critics seem to imagine he did, that he would encourage young people to climb into the nearest sack to engage in sexual relations, with or without a condom. What he said was, if young people intend to do “it” and a boy and a girl might never have thought about doing “it” if Mr. Powell had not given them the idea they would be wiser to do “it” with a condom than without. Armed with good intentions, some groups, notably the Family Research Council, hotly objected. The president of the council said Mr. Powell’s remarks were “reckless and irresponsible” and a “slap in the face” of the president’s supporters.
Parents who try, against all the odds, to inculcate the values of decency in their children feel pushed and pressed by the vulgarity and cheapness of the pop culture. They rarely get help from the top, and after eight years of moral sleaze oozing nonstop from the White House you can’t blame them for wishing the government would make the bad stuff go away.
But Mr. Powell was right to stand his ground. “I have no apology for the way in which I answered the question,” he told interviewers on one network (CNN-TV) and an interviewer on another (NBC-TV) that he thinks it’s time “for us to speak out clearly and responsibly to help millions of youngsters around the world.” In many countries, he said, there is a great need to educate young people about abstinence as well as condom use and being faithful.
“But if they are going to be sexually active, we’ve got to educate them how to protect themselves. And one way to do that is with condoms. And for me to have said anything else would have been irresponsible.”
The secretary of state has, in fact, encouraged abstinence for young people, not only as a means to prevent lethal disease but as a route to self-respect. Mr. Powell and his wife, Alma Powell, have devoted considerable of their resources, both financial and otherwise, to helping young women in difficult circumstances lead decent and successful lives. This president, and his administration, has advocated abstinence along with sexual education to give support to young men and women who struggle against the pressures of the trash culture to “do the right thing.”
Rep. Henry Hyde, a Catholic, a Republican and a conservative with few peers in the defense of conventional morality, defends Mr. Powell: “He was addressing a limited audience sexually active teenagers.” The president himself has not said yes or no on condoms. But Mr. Bush, a father who has observed a few things about young people and the temptations that are put in their way, did not object to Mr. Powell’s remarks. He sent his press secretary out to say so: “There’s of course a group of people who are going to be sexually active no matter what anybody in the government, or anybody’s family, says about abstinence.”
With the debate on condoms deflated, Colin Powell can turn his attention to less contentious matters, such as the Israeli-Palestinian riddle, what to do about Saddam Hussein, how to keep the alliance together. Secretaries of state usually don’t concern themselves with big problems, like condoms.
He might wish he had punted this one to his pal Donald Rumsfeld. Virgins and how to protect them should more properly be the concern of the secretary of defense.