WASHINGTON – One of the Bush administration's choices for a spot on the presidential AIDS panel withdrew from consideration Thursday, after an uproar erupted accusing him of characterizing the AIDS virus as a "gay plague."
Jerry Thacker would have been one of seven new members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, the 35-member commission created in 1995 by President Clinton to advise the White House on AIDS prevention and treatment policy. He was to be sworn in next week by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
Thacker sent a letter to Thompson declining the appointment.
"I feel I must withdraw my name from consideration to serve at this time due to my and my family's personal concern about my ability to be effective with the Council given the current controversy," Thacker wrote in the letter.
Trying to distance his boss from the controversy, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer criticized comments attributed to Thacker.
"The views that he holds are far, far removed from what the president believes," Fleischer said, adding that the appointment is made at a Cabinet level, not at the presidential level. "The president's view is that people with AIDS need to be treated with care, compassion."
Asked if President Bush thinks that AIDS is a gay plague, Fleischer responded, "Those words are as wrong as they are inappropriate."
Regardless of Thacker's withdrawal, the mere possibility that his name was in the pool of potential candidates was enough to anger some lawmakers.
"President Bush needs to explain how compassionate conservatism seems to include the offensive, bigoted views of Mr. Thacker," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said in a statement before Thacker's withdrawal. "It's the stealth administration at work again to please the right wing ... [Thacker's] brand of reactionary gay bashing has no place in public policy and government."
Kerry called on Bush to reverse his decision to appoint Thacker.
"AIDS prevention is one of the greatest challenges that we face in the U.S. and around the globe, and there is no room for those who are more focused on bigotry than on the most effective methods to prevent and eradicate AIDS and HIV," Kerry said.
But the angst caused by the possibility of Thacker's appointment may be misplaced, he suggested.
Thacker has been cited as condemning the gay community, and labeling AIDS as a "gay plague." The attribution to Thacker misstates his position, he said. In his letter, Thacker said he uses the term "plague" — not "gay plague" — only to describe the disease's spread in the United States from mainly affecting gays to all segments of the population.
On his personal and company Web sites, Thacker does in fact use the term "plague," not "gay plague."
In fact, AIDS was called the "gay plague" before 1984, when scientists officially identified the illness that was striking gay men as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
Thacker is also credited with referring to gay people as practicing a "deathstyle," rather than a lifestyle, and describing homosexuality as a condition that can be cured by Christianity.
That information was later deleted from the Web site for Bob Jones University — his alma mater and former employer — when Thacker complained that the comments, written by someone else, were not accurate reflections of his views.
"I do not consider myself anti-gay," he wrote to Thompson. "I am, however, anti-HIV/AIDS. The three infected people in our family ... would not wish this disease on any other human being."
The West Virginia-born Thacker is president of Right Ideas Inc. and of the Scepter Institute, a non-profit educational entity, both located in Reading, Pa. He also publishes several Christian magazines.
Thacker's book, When AIDS Comes Home, is the story of how he and his family have dealt with HIV/AIDS, contracted as a result of a blood transfusion given to his wife in 1984. He and his wife Sue, and their daughter Sarah, are all infected with the virus.
According to Thacker's Scepter Institute biography, before he discovered he was infected Thacker thought: "AIDS was something that bad people had to worry about. Not Christians. Not the church."
Though he kept his family's condition secret for years, Thacker later began lecturing, visiting churches, writing books and making videos "dispelling the myths about AIDS and helping Christians to think 'Christianly' about the subject." Thacker maintains his goal is to teach a religious community that the disease can strike anyone and that the stereotypes previously associated with it must be overcome.
"People with HIV are not to be feared," Thacker told West Virginians attending a church-sponsored event last October. "They need the love of Christ and the compassion of God's people to see them through a very difficult period in their lives."
The Washington Blade, a gay weekly newspaper in Washington, D.C., wrote this week that Thacker confirmed he was notified by letter of his appointment to the AIDS commission and would be attending the upcoming panel meeting in D.C. next week.
He told the paper that his ministry advocates treating all people with AIDS, including homosexuals, "with compassion and love."
The Blade reports that the other six appointees to the 35-member panel have less controversial backgrounds.
Carl Schmid, a gay Republican advocate who worked on the Bush campaign in 2000, told The Blade that all of the latest appointees except Thacker appear to be well-suited for the appointments.
"It's good to have differences of opinions on PACHA," Schmid said. "But Thacker is way out of the mainstream. He has made anti-gay statements and appears to be yet another abstinence-only advocate."
Among Thacker's lecture topics is his message of pre-marriage abstinence to teens. "For the unmarried, the only truly 'safe sex' is not to have sex," he has written.
David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group, applauded the news that Thacker would not join the panel but said Bush administration AIDS policies still fall short.
"While this is a positive development, the underlying problem continues to remain with this administration's approach to HIV and AIDS," Smith said. "Their obsessive focus on abstinence as the solitary mechanism to prevent the transmission of HIV is not based in sound science. They continue to come from an ideological perspective as opposed to a scientific perspective."
Fox News' Jim Angle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.