Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The national doc's damaging dish

George W. Bush is hardly the first president to use government power for selfish political purposes, and to treat nonpartisan public servants as mere errand boys for a partisan agenda. But no predecessor has ever sought to institutionalize these practices with such fervor – as we learned, yet again, in sworn testimony yesterday on Capitol Hill.

Dr. Richard Carmona, an ex-Army Special Forces medic and ex-Arizona deputy sheriff who served as U.S. Surgeon General from 2002 to 2006, clearly had an unenviable job. He tried repeatedly to speak out publicly about empirical scientific truths (on everything from stem cells to sex education), but he was working for a regime that adhered to faith-based certitudes; hence, he spent most of his tenure trying in vain to remove the masking tape that had been affixed to his mouth.

For instance, he once was invited to attend a meeting on global warming. At that meeting, a Bush official dismissed global warming as a liberal cause. Carmona wanted to discuss the science, but he was “never invited back.” And when he tried to raise the issue of stem-cell science, “I was told to stand down and not speak about it. It was removed from my speeches.”

It’s rare to hear a former loyalist dish on the Decider with such impunity, but apparently he’s still rankled by his dealings with the Bush apparatchiks: “Anything that doesn’t fit into the political appointees’ ideological, theological or political agenda is ignored, marginalized or simply buried. 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…The job of surgeon general is to be the doctor of the nation, not the doctor of a political party…”

Carmona followed up his testimony with an interview last night on PBS: “(I) was not allowed to speak out on health issues when needed, based on the best science, to deliver the best science…information that the American public needed to know, to be better informed to make good decisions…”

I was particularly struck, however, by one item in his sworn testimony – fresh evidence that the loyal Bushies were trying to compel nonpartisan public servants to subscribe to the kind of leadership cult commonly seen in places like North Korea:

It was the little detail about how he was ordered to invoke Bush’s name three times on every page of every speech.

By the way, the White House countered in the usual fashion yesterday, contending that Carmona failed in his job. Make of that what you will. I also anticipate that the Bush defenders will blithely ignore Carmona’s list of substantive complaints (among other things, he was ordered not to talk about advances in stem-cell science, or about how Bush’s abstinence-only stance on teen sex contradicted the best public health science), and simply take refuge in the “What About Clinton?” defense. And, yes, it’s true that Carmona’s predecessor, David Satcher, was barred in 1998 from releasing a new report about sexuality because its release would have been politically awkward for a president enmeshed at the time in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And yes, it’s also true that Clinton forced Satcher’s predecessor, Jocelyn Elders, to resign in 1994 after she suggested publicly that masturbation should be discussed in sex ed courses.

But Carmona’s remarks need to be seen in proper context – as further evidence of the Bush regime’s unprecedented attempts to politicize the institutions of government, to bend them in the service of partisan ends.

As we already know, Bush has brought his same inimitable governing style to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (staffed with loyalists, such as Michael “heckuva job” Brown, who gutted the FEMA mission); the Justice Department (the still-unfolding prosecutor purge scandal), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (where scientists were barred from speaking out about global warming), the Food and Drug Administration (where the apparatchiks delayed the nonprescription availability of the morning-after pill), the Environmental Protection Agency (where Dick Cheney ordered the easing of air pollution rules, to satisfy the power plant industry that had donated heavily to the Bush-Cheney campaign), and, most infamously, the Department of Defense (where neoconservatives set up their own shop to push the case for war in Iraq).

Indeed, everything Carmona said yesterday merely confirms what John DiIulio was the first to say, five long years ago. DiIulio, a University of Pennsylvania professor and domestic policy expert, lasted barely a year as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. His parting shot looks more prescient with each passing day:

“There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. What you’ve got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."


Quote of the day: “He seemed to be one of the nicest men and most honorable men I’ve ever met.”

- Jeanette Maier, former madame of a New Orleans whorehouse, extolling Republican Senator David Vitter, a “family values” conservative and married father of four, who, it turns out, regularly patronized her place of business during the ‘90s, at $300 a pop...while he was publicly writing that Bill Clinton should be impeached “because he is morally unfit to govern.”

I wonder whether Maier’s glowing character reference will help Vitter in his latest effort, serving as Rudy Giuliani’s liaison to southern Christian conservatives. A prayerful session on religious right leader James Dobson’s radio show may be in order.


Quote of the day (runner-up), courtesy of ex-Bush White House political director Sara Taylor, as she tried to explain, during Senate testimony today, why she was refusing to shed any light on Bush's possible role in the Justice Department's prosecutor purge scandal:

"I took an oath to the president, and I take that oath very seriously."

There it is again, the cult of the Leader. The fact is, Sara Taylor did not take an oath to the president. She took an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution - as she later acknowledged under questioning.