A veteran of combat and police sieges, Dr. Richard H. Carmona thought he knew a dangerous assignment when he saw it. But he didn't know what he was getting into when he signed up to be U.S. surgeon general in the administration of George W. Bush. He entered an unfamiliar, high-risk environment sprinkled with snipers and pockmarked by (political) land mines.
As the nation's top doc from 2002 to 2006, Dr. Carmona was ordered not to discuss embryonic stem cell research or the emergency contraceptive known as Plan B, he said last week in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He was ordered to water down a report on the dangers of secondhand smoke.
He definitely couldn't point out the failings of abstinence programs. In speeches that were vetted by other political appointees, he was ordered to mention President Bush three times for every page.
Politics and a hard-right ideology, Dr. Carmona learned, trumped everything else, including the hard facts offered by science. "Much of the discussion was being driven by theology, ideology [and] perceived beliefs that were scientifically incorrect," he said.
Dr. Carmona, an Army Special Forces veteran and former leader of the Pima, Ariz., SWAT team, is just the latest in a parade of former Bush administration officials to criticize a White House that is hostile to science and impervious to the conclusions driven by its research. Modern-day know-nothings, Bush administration officials share with Islamist jihadists a profound distrust of modernity.
Unconvinced by the broad scientific consensus that endorses evolution, the president has argued for teaching the phony science of so-called intelligent design, arguing that "both sides ought to be properly taught ... so people can understand what the debate is about." For years, Mr. Bush was dismissive of a growing body of scientific research that left little doubt that human activity has caused global warming. Recently, he has sidled up to acceptance of the evidence, but he has done little to combat climate change.
And he has stood firm against the advance of embryonic stem cell research, a promising avenue that might eventually lead to cures for such maladies as diabetes, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's. Stingy with his veto pen, the president has exercised it only three times - two of those to block measures to broaden federal research on embryonic stem cells.
Last month, the president clung to a dubious rationale that values the "lives" of embryos over the lives of full-fledged children suffering with juvenile diabetes. His argument is even less rational if you consider the fate of the vast majority of leftover embryos: They will eventually be destroyed. Apparently, it's perfectly acceptable to dump those blastocysts in the trash. But using them to cure hideous diseases? That's unacceptable, according to Mr. Bush's moral principles.
Dr. Carmona believed that as the nation's top public health officer, he should be able to offer guidance on the subject of embryonic stem cell research "so that we can have, if you will, informed consent. I was told to stand down and not speak about it. It was removed from my speeches," he said.
When his four-year term was over, Dr. Carmona was not asked to stay. The Bush administration instead has found someone more to its liking, Dr. James W. Holsinger Jr., who has written, among other things, that homosexual sex is unnatural and unhealthy.
If Dr. Holsinger has also found that women should never occupy the Oval Office because they are hysterical and prone to fits of monthly distemper, he could be a candidate for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That's the prize for those whose service in the Bush administration abuses the public trust but accommodates the president's political machinations.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.
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