Vice Admiral Richard Carmona is conspicuous by his absence in discussion of CNN’s medical expert, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, to be the nation’s Surgeon General. That’s a point worth keeping in mind as part of the transition from the administration of President George W. Bush to the widely anticipated presidency of Barack Obama.
Carmona, as you may recall, was the nation’s 17th appointed Surgeon General and, including those named in “acting” capacity, the 23rd person to hold the position. He was, however, the only Surgeon General to leave the post complaining about how the Office of the President had interfered with and suppressed scientific findings that conflicted with an administration’s political agenda.
Carmona, who served from Aug. 5, 2002, to July 31, 2006, could be the poster boy for the new meaning the Bush administration brought to the term “political science.”
But, as noted, he does not surface in the Gupta debate, nor do his successors, acting Surgeon Generals Rear Admiral Kenneth Moritsugu, Aug. 1-2006-Sept. 30, 2007, and Rear Admiral Steven Galson, Oct. 1, 2007-present. (Those of admiral rank have dominated the position; of the 25 appointed and acting Surgeon Generals since the first appointment in 1871, all but two have been admirals.) The gagging of the Surgeon General in particular and the dismissal of science in general during the Bush administration haven’t figured in the debate generated by the candidacy of Sanjay Gupta, who in addition to being a broadcast talent for CNN is a neurosurgeon at two Atlanta Hospitals and an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the Emory University School of Medicine.
Criticism of Gupta, as opposed to concerns about how the new administration will treat science, seems focused in three areas: First there is concern about what some, including the Physicians for a National Health Plan, see as his opposition to a single-payer health care system as a keystone of health care reform.
Second is whether he has adequately made penance for his broadcast analysis that Michael Moore “fudged the facts” in SICKO, his movie about U.S. healthcare. This leads to the complaint that inside the Beltway amiable and fashionable people who are wrong are preferred over ragamuffins who are right.
Third is whether his lack of experience in public health areas rules him out as the leader of the 6,000 uniformed physicians in the U.S. Public Health Service’s Commissioned Corps. (That’s one reason admirals have had a lock on the position.)
Even granted the legitimacy of these concerns, the news media should not lose sight of Vice Admiral Richard Carmona and the damage done to the nation when science is expected to advance a political agenda. That is part of the Bush legacy that needs to be repudiated by the Obama administration, and we need to be mindful of that with nominations such as the one for Surgeon General. Despite concern over Gupta, no one is complaining that Obama wants to discredit or ignore science. Just the opposite.