THE RAP AGAINST COLIN POWELL has long been that he is too much the diplomat, more concerned with international sensibilities than the national interest, more interested in saying kind words than in speaking the truth. He certainly lived up to that reputation during last week’s visit to MTV.
The moment came when a member of an international studio audience participating via satellite, 19-year-old Daniela Satori in Milan, presented a botched interpretation of Catholic social teaching. "As a young Catholic woman," Satori said through an interpreter, "I would like to know from the secretary of state what he thinks of the Catholic position on condoms, which are prohibited, and therefore this condemns anyone who might be exposed to this virus."
The question, it's worth noting, dealt only with the limited question of Catholic teaching, which Powell, who is neither Catholic nor a theologian, could have dealt with easily nonetheless. "Well," he could have said, "my understanding is that the Catholic Church teaches against all sex outside of marriage. So I would think that anyone who honored its teachings would be safe from HIV infection." Next question?
Curiously Powell didn’t address the substance of Satori’s inquiry. After saying that he respects "the view of the Holy Father and the Catholic Church," he went on to issue his now infamous declaration in support of condoms. It was the classic example of a politician not answering the question at hand, but providing a pre-planned, scripted response. Given the audience, Powell had to expect a question about sex that day, and he wanted to make a statement. That’s what makes his choice of words all the more telling.
"In my own judgment," Powell said, "condoms are a way to prevent infection. Therefore, I not only support their use, I encourage their use among people who are sexually active and need to protect themselves."
Now that statement has got him into trouble among members of his own party. Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, called it "reckless and irresponsible" and a "slap in the face" to the President George W. Bush’s conservative base.
Condom politics straddle dangerous cultural terrain because, although cast in the language of public health, the underlying issue is invariably morality. For the better part of two decades, the left and the right have both been guilty of trying to exploit the AIDS pandemic to push a cultural agenda. For the left, overstating the risk of HIV and the value of condoms in stopping it has been the excuse to pour prophylactics and the message that premarital sex is fun, safe, and all the rage into public schools. Conservatives, by extension, have often behaved as though scaring people about the risks of AIDS and the limitations of condoms sometimes by exaggerating those limitations might prompt a renewed interest in sexual morality within secular society.
But for its part, the Bush Administration has steered a more honest path. It has largely embraced a no-nonsense straight-talking policy that tells kids that premarital sex is risky, stupid (and for that matter, immoral) business, made only partially less so by the use of condoms. Condoms can reduce the risk of infection, with (depending on the usage) reliability rates ranging from 69 to 98 percent, but it only takes one failure to render 99 successful uses meaningless. That’s why the administration stresses chastity abstinence, followed by fidelity as the only truly safe sex, without denying that for those hell-bent on risky behavior, condoms offer limited protection.
In the week following his controversial MTV appearance, Powell has insisted that the policy he put forth was consistent with the administration’s. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, he assured an audience more learned and more mature than the one he faced on MTV that "our policy begins with abstinence." Moreover, "I’m a great supporter of abstinence programs," he said, noting that he and his wife have actively supported them personally and financially.
Yet in his carefully chosen words for the MTV crowd, Powell only offered half of the administration’s policy the half that was likely to be applauded by an audience of adolescents reared on sexually charged music videos. He cheered on condoms, while leaving out the abstinence component, which probably would have been received less enthusiastically, but would have saved more lives.
Powell’s defenders on the Left see no fault in his omission. A Washington Post editorial rejected the claim that "Powell, in supporting condom use, is saying no to abstinence education." While calling abstinence "a self-evident way to avoid pregnancy and sex related infections," the paper’s editors observed that "Powell’s response was appropriately directed to young people who have passed over the abstinence-only message and are engaging in sexual activity."
Yet limiting his advocacy of condom use to only those "who are sexually active" is inadequate for the MTV crowd. These are children of the sexual revolution, most likely raised by Baby Boomers who never gave much thought to chastity themselves. Throughout the media, and especially on their favorite cable station, they are regularly inundated with the message that everyone is sexually active, and that anyone who chooses not to be is most likely a repressed, insufferable prude.
Powell’s MTV audience, far more than the much smaller one watching Meet the Press, needed to hear the a-word that the Secretary of State conveniently skipped over.
Ever the diplomat, Powell gave the audience the message it wanted to hear, and it seemed to pay off. The New York Times reports that following his condom statement, "a young woman sitting in the studio audience in Moscow and visible on a monitor here flashed a thumbs up and mouthed, ‘Yes!’ "
This is a hipper, cooler, MTV sort of secretary of state. "It is important that the whole international community come together, speak candidly about (sex)," Powell told his young audience, "forget about taboos, forget about conservative ideas with respect to what you should tell young people about."
And forget about speaking inconvenient truths that might not be well received on MTV save those for Meet the Press.