03/13/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
AS DR. HENRY FOSTER STROLLS along a dusty redbrick housing project in Nashville, he is treated like a hometown hero. Bill Clinton's embattled choice for Surgeon General is greeted by dozens of friends in the close-knit black community he has served for more than 20 years. "Hang in there, doctor!" shouts a woman from a passing van.
"I am," responds Foster with determination, "I am."
Indeed, the 61-year-old obstetrician-gynecologist is braced for the fight of his life. So is the White House. For the first time since becoming President, Clinton seems willing to back a controversial nominee in a major confirmation battle—even though the debate will take place in the new Republican-controlled Senate. Foster, meanwhile, is going on the offensive, angered by conservatives who have attacked his record. "My every move has been watched professionally for the last 20 years," he told PEOPLE. "Now these right-wing groups are grasping at anything. Well, that is totally unacceptable."
Foster's problems began just days after his nomination on Feb. 2. At first he told reporters he had performed "fewer than a dozen pregnancy terminations." But as conservative groups began examining his record, he was forced to concede that the actual tally was 39. His credibility came under further attack when he admitted he had supervised clinical trials on an experimental drug in the early '80s that ended another 55 pregnancies. "Foster has been in the forefront of the movement for abortion," claims Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. "Any effort by the Clinton Administration to paint him otherwise is misleading."
Foster says of the abortion controversy, "I should never have gotten into counting. Why should I? I don't know of a single legislator in Washington whom you could walk up to and ask, How many times have you voted on a labor bill? and get a specific answer."
Foster has also come under fire from the conservative Family Research Council, which charged that he had tacitly supported the Tuskegee Project, an infamous federal study in which some 400 poor black men with syphilis were left untreated so public health doctors could track the effects of their disease. An angry Foster insists he actually led a move in 1972 to get the men medical treatment, and says the charge is politically motivated. "The moment we found out that treatment was withheld, we were outraged. This is all just pure distortion."
In many ways Foster, who grew up in Pine Bluff, Ark., has spent his life defying long odds. His father, Henry Sr., a high school science teacher, and mother, Ivie, a college art teacher, taught young Hank and his sister Doris that education was the way to get ahead in the segregated South. "My father would point to his brain and say, 'The key to unlocking everything is here,' " Foster recalls. "I believed him."
After earning a biology degree at Atlanta's Morehouse College in 1954, Foster entered the University of Arkansas Medical School, where he was the only black in the class. Graduating in 1958, Foster interned at the Detroit Receiving Hospital, where he met St. Clair "Sandy" Anderson, now 58, a nurse he married two years later. The couple has two children: Myrna, 32, an intermediate-school teacher in McLean, Va., and Wendell, 31, a director of research at Walt Disney Television in Burbank, Calif.
For most of his career, Foster has dedicated himself to helping the less fortunate, working mainly at John Andrew Memorial Hospital in Tuskegee, Ala., and Nashville's Meharry Medical College—and piloting his own Cessna, a passion, to see patients at both medical centers. In 1987, Foster developed his highly praised "I Have a Future" initiative, which has taught hundreds of Nashville's disadvantaged teens the value of sexual abstinence and education. That work was recognized by George Bush in 1991 as one of his "Thousand Points of Light."
Foster says he was cheered by a recent phone call from his "good friend" Joycelyn Elders, the Surgeon General fired by Clinton last December for, among other things, her controversial remarks about masturbation. She advised him to "tell the truth and be yourself"—and Foster intends to do just that when his confirmation hearings begin in the Senate this month. "I try to confront challenges with three things: intelligence, energy and integrity," he says. "Those are the values I try to teach."
JANE SIMS PODESTA in Nashville