WASHINGTON — Both the chairman and vice chairman of the presidential AIDS commission--reportedly unhappy about divisiveness among its members--resigned abruptly Wednesday, leaving the already embattled panel in turmoil.
Dr. W. Eugene Mayberry, the outgoing chairman, who is chief executive officer of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., refused to elaborate on his reasons for quitting, but knowledgeable sources said Mayberry has long been unhappy with the commission's makeup and its "internal politics and bickering." He resisted resigning earlier because "he didn't want to embarrass the President," one source said.
Seeks National Strategy
Moreover, sources said, Mayberry believes that the panel is so divided that it "will never arrive at a consensus report." The first report of the commission, which is charged with advising the President on a national strategy for the AIDS epidemic, is due Dec. 7, with its final report expected in July.
Dr. Woodrow A. Myers Jr., Mayberry's handpicked vice chairman, who is Indiana's health commissioner, announced his departure within hours of Mayberry's. "I feel I can no longer be effective in attempting to reach the goals outlined in the President's order creating the commission," he said.
Later Wednesday, the White House announced that a commission member, Adm. James D. Watkins, would take over as chairman. Watkins is retired chief of naval operations.
Myers told an Indiana legislative study committee that he hoped the individuals selected to replace him and Mayberry would have established public health backgrounds or experience in caring for AIDS patients.
He said health professionals are not adequately represented on the panel and that it is deadlocked on key AIDS-related issues.
"There were divisions on the commission, both in ideology and in personalities," Myers said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "Given the seriousness of those divisions, the mandate we had to reach, and the time we had to reach it--and Gene's decision to leave--and my other responsibilities: that added up to a resignation. It was a tough decision. I didn't do it lightly."
Gary L. Bauer, the President's domestic affairs adviser, attributed Mayberry's frustration to "the effect the demands of the commission job has had on his work at the clinic."
He described Watkins as a "good choice" to take over "because he is semiretired and would have the time to devote to the chairman's job."
Congressional sources said, however, that the personality conflicts within the 13-member commission were a chief factor in the resignations and that they had caused Mayberry to tell White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. that he would resign unless two members--the source could not identify them--were removed.
'Handwriting on the Wall'
"Mayberry heard nothing back, just silence," one source said. "He took that as handwriting on the wall and submitted his resignation."
Several knowledgeable sources said there had been considerable friction between Mayberry and Dr. William B. Walsh, a commission member and founder and president of the Project Hope charity organization. Walsh, however, denied that he and Mayberry had been at odds.
"This is a mystery to me--I don't know who is saying all these things about me," Walsh said in an interview. "I've known Gene for many years. My wife's life was saved at the Mayo Clinic. I offered to assist him to whatever degree I could."
The panel has been beset with controversy since its inception. The White House initially was criticized for resisting pressure to appoint an openly homosexual member to the commission, although a gay, Frank Lilly, chairman of genetics at the Albert Einstein University Medical Center in New York, eventually was named.
After its membership was announced, the commission was further attacked for its failure to include more individuals with wider AIDS expertise, and for including some individuals whose views conflict with widely accepted medical evidence about the disease.
Finally, Linda D. Sheaffer, the commission's executive director, was forced to resign by some commission members last month against the wishes of Mayberry, who had selected her. The ouster appeared to undercut Mayberry's authority and intensified the turmoil within the commission.
The new departures are expected to leave the panel in further disarray. Commission members and others have already acknowledged that the panel's continuing problems have eroded its progress. "There has been a great deal of frustration that we haven't been moving faster," Walsh said.
Dr. Edward N. Brandt Jr., chairman of the National Leadership Coalition on AIDS, predicted that the loss of Mayberry and Myers would "impede the commission's effectiveness."
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is caused by a virus that destroys the body's immune system, leaving it powerless against certain cancers and otherwise rare infections. It can also invade the central nervous system, causing severe neurological disorders. It is transmitted commonly through sexual intercourse, through the sharing of unsterilized hypodermic needles, and by woman to fetus during pregnancy.