Elders reflects on her public life

Former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders discussed six lessons that she has learned from public life during the fourth annual Rosalynn Carter Distinguished Lecture on Oct. 16. Elders, whom President Bill Clinton fired nearly two years ago for her remarks on drug legalization and sex education, focused her remarks on public life, health care and her hopes for the future.

The first three of the six lessons Elders' cited are: 1) power is not given; it is taken away; 2) it is important to set your own agenda; 3) people are often afraid of change, so good timing is essential.

"If the time is not right, the people are not right," Elders said. "If the people are not right, the money is not right. If the money is not right, then you are not right. This leads to the fourth lesson of public life; a leader must have gumption. It takes a great deal of time and effort to change things for the better, and so public life requires the gumption to make demands with clarity, and stick to them. Leadership is not a solitary endeavor, however, and so a leader must also not be afraid to ask for help." She cited the importance of facilitating teamwork as the fifth lesson.

"Sixth, don't worry about who gets the credit," Elders continued. "One of the toughest responsibilities and sacrifices of leadership is humility. As a leader, the welfare of the governed is much more important than the recognition of the leader's efforts. Therefore, public life often involves more hard work than gratitude. The most important thing is that the job gets done properly."

Elders' discussion about health care focused on its problems and her solutions. She said the major problems with the existing health care system are the "four CEUs," meaning that the system is not coherent, comprehensive, equitable or universal.

Solving these problems, Elders said, will require a greater investment in preventive medicine, such as education, prenatal care, immunization and contraception. She also believes that if women are healthy, then children are healthy. Therefore, any health care system must meet the needs of women.
An often controversial figure during her days as surgeon general, Elders said that she has no regrets about her performance in that role and that she learned a great deal from the experience. Elders said the goal of any surgeon general is improving the health of the nation, and she feels that preventive medicine is essential for achieving her goal of an educated, healthy and hopeful population of Americans.

--Erin Miles

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