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Published: Friday, 7/13/2007

Doctoring health and science

WHERE is the line between partisan politics and the impartial conduct of the nation's business? For President Bush and members of his administration, that's an easy question because, to them, there isn't any line.

Once again this week we were faced with the spectacle of a former federal official testifying before a congressional committee that Bush lackeys frequently attempted to politicize issues so important that they should have been apolitical.

In this case, the ex-official was Dr. Richard Carmona, surgeon general from 2002-2006, and the information that the White House wanted to spin, suppress, or otherwise doctor had to do with virtually every critical issue of public health.

According to Dr. Carmona, he was told to stay away from most significant health issues because the administration had already "decided which way we want to go." He was told to "not to speak" about stem cells, and references to the debate over their uses were removed from his speeches.

He also was discouraged from addressing sex education because his opinion did not mesh completely with the White House's "abstinence only" policy. In addition, a surgeon general's report on global health was never approved because Dr. Carmona refused to insert praise for the efforts of the Bush Administration, and a prison health report has been delayed because the White House doesn't want to increase spending on prison health care, as the report recommends.

He was even discouraged from attending the Special Olympics, being asked why he would "want to help those people," referring to the Kennedys, who have a long association with the charitable organization.

But it doesn't end there. The nation's doctor - the physician Americans ought to be able to trust for health information as implicitly as the family doctor - was ordered to mention President Bush's name three time on every page of speeches he gave and was asked to speak on behalf of Republican candidates.

He was required to attend mandatory meetings with administration officials that he described as "political pep rallies." Bush political strategist and deputy chief of staff Karl Rove attended at least one of these sessions, where GOP candidates and political strategy were discussed.

To his credit, Dr. Carmona soon stopped attending these "brown-bags." Indeed, perhaps the frequent conflicts with administration officials are sufficient to explain why he was not nominated for a second term as surgeon general.

To be sure, it's nothing new for the White House to exert pressure on the surgeon general to tone down, delay, or kill a report. Both Dr. C. Everett Coop and Dr. David Satcher, testifying before the same committee, complained of interference from the Reagan and Clinton administrations, respectively.

But for sheer scope, there has never been anything to compare with this administration's drive to obscure, indeed obliterate, the line between politics and governance, not to mention its obdurate disdain for science.

As the Senate begins hearings on President Bush's nominee to replace Dr. Carmona, perhaps Dr. James Holsinger, who has raised concerns because of his extreme views on homosexuality, should be reminded that while the surgeon general is supposed to be a nonpartisan position, trying to stick to that under this administration can prove to be bad for your health.



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