Recent controversies regarding the office of the surgeon general are a reminder to Americans that political appointments are, in fact, political, regardless of our expectations otherwise.
Dr. Richard Carmona, who served as America’s surgeon general from 2002 until 2006, told a House committee that the Bush administration interfered or censored his work in areas involving stem cell research, contraceptives and sex education in order to make sure his office’s comments aligned with the administration’s conservative views in these areas.
“The problem with this approach is that in public health, as in a democracy, there is nothing worse than ignoring science, or marginalizing the voice of science for reasons driven by changing political winds,” Carmona told the committee July 10.
“The job of surgeon general is to be the doctor of the nation, not the doctor of a political party.”
While we, too, object to the administration’s efforts to censor scientific inquiry in order to cater to a particular worldview, Carmona’s comments strike as a bit naive. If nothing else, the authoritarian attitude of the Bush administration has highlighted something Americans really need to take to heart — there’s no such thing as a non-political appointment.
We all may remember Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the surgeon general under President Clinton who was forced out after controversially endorsing sexual education to the degree where she suggested schools teach youths about masturbation.
Elders’ comments went far over the top of what most Americans are willing to accept from their schools, even those who support inclusive sex education. Her removal from office had nothing to do with science, but with politics and the embarrassment she brought to the Clinton administration.
Any government position that is filled by the president with the approval of Congress is inherently political, and because of this, we should teach ourselves to be as suspect of their motives and influences as we are of experts in the private industry. An expert’s employment by the government simply should not be considered a sign of objectivity.