the kicker

Surgeon General’s Warning

Politics always trumps science in the Bush White House
July 11, 2007

Both The New York Times and The Washington Post today front devastating stories about the former surgeon general, Dr. Richard Carmona, telling Congress in a hearing yesterday that the White House infused politics into everything he did. “Anything that doesn’t fit into the political appointees’ ideological, theological or political agenda is often ignored, marginalized or simply buried,” he told a House committee. “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.”

As both papers remind us, Carmona is not the first government official to charge that, as the Times puts it, “politics often trumped science within what had previously been largely nonpartisan government health and scientific agencies.”

But the Post does something that the Times doesn’t do. It’s one thing to say that Carmona is “one of a growing list of present and former administration officials” to make this complaint, and it’s another thing to actually name a few examples. This is what the Post does. There’s Story Landis, the head of the NIH’s task force on stem cells who in January said that because of the Bush policy, the nation is “missing out on possible breakthroughs.” Three months later the director of the NIH called the Bush policy “shortsighted.” Then there’s also the NASA researchers who have said that the administration has made it almost impossible for them to work on global warming. And remember the head of the FDA’s Office on Women’s Health who quit in 2005 to protest the constant political interference.

This background matters. It gives context. This is not just a story about one surgeon general’s complaints. This is a pattern, a consistent approach. Newspaper stories sometimes miss this bigger picture, the accumulation of evidence. Especially with a White House administration, it’s critical to provide us with all those dots so we can connect them.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR and a writer and editor for the New York Times Book Review.