USA Today, July 12, 2007
Remember C. Everett Koop, the imposing, uniformed surgeon general with a penchant for blunt talk about public health? As the Reagan administration's lead medical officer, he followed science wherever it led, regardless of politics.
He talked about AIDS and how it's transmitted in detail that was both uncomfortably graphic and absolutely essential at the time. He pushed contraception along with abstinence. And he declared war on the politically potent tobacco industry, likening smoking's addictiveness to that of cocaine.
Despite cries from conservatives for Koop's head, President Reagan backed him for seven years. Reagan seemed to understand that some areas should be off-limits to politics.
Not so the Bush administration, as the nation was reminded twice this week.
On Tuesday, President Bush's former surgeon general, Richard Carmona, testified that the administration had muzzled him on a string of critical public health issues, from sex education to emergency contraception to stem cell research. "Anything that doesn't fit into the political appointees' ideological, theological or political agenda is often ignored, marginalized or simply buried," Carmona told a House committee.
It does not speak well of Carmona that he accepted the muzzling. A surgeon general who is loyal to science can educate people on the facts, countering political, religious and economic biases that can cloud those facts. That principled voice is needed, even when it grates on the president's ears.
Independence may be even more critical in another arena -- the law. More information emerged this week that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is incapable of providing it. For months, evidence has been mounting that Gonzales' Justice Department is a politicized outpost of the White House, rather than the independent dispenser of justice it's supposed to be.
Newly released records show that Gonzales was copied in 2005 on reports about FBI violations of civil liberties and privacy. Days later, he testified to Congress that there were no verified abuses of the USA Patriot Act, the renewal of which was a major White House objective.
Just as it's up to the nation's top doctor to put health first, it's up to the nation's top lawyer to put the rights of Americans above partisan politics. Gonzales has amply demonstrated that he put the wishes of the White House first, whether ignoring legal defects in a domestic eavesdropping program or firing prosecutors who had run afoul of influential Republicans.
As for Carmona, if his forthrightness comes late, it is at least timely. Confirmation hearings scheduled today for his nominated successor, James Holsinger Jr., should focus on whether Holsinger has the backbone to defend science and stand up to political censorship.
That's tough, especially when it means bucking the White House. But without independent leaders to speak their minds, neither the public's health nor its liberties will be well protected.
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