By Ceci Connolly and Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
America's most famous television surgeon, Sanjay Gupta, is poised to take his black bag and microphone to the White House as President-elect Barack Obama's choice for U.S. surgeon general.
A neurosurgeon who is also a correspondent for CNN and CBS, Gupta was chosen as much for his broadcasting skills as for his medical résumé, suggesting that the incoming administration values visible advisers who can drive a public message. He has also been offered a top post in the new White House Office of Health Reform, twin duties that could make him the most influential surgeon general in history.
A practicing physician and one of People magazine's "Sexiest Men Alive," Gupta met for more than two hours with Obama in Chicago on Nov. 25, according to two sources with knowledge of the talks. Gupta, 39, later spoke with several Obama advisers, including Thomas A. Daschle, who will run the new White House policy office and the Department of Health and Human Services.
The globetrotting doctor has told Obama aides he wants the job, which involves overseeing the 6,000-member Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service. When reached yesterday, Gupta did not deny that he plans to accept the offer but declined to comment.
Transition officials refused to speak on the record about his selection, but several Obama allies praised Gupta as the sort of highly visible, articulate physician who might restore the luster that the position of "the nation's doctor" had in the person of Reagan appointee C. Everett Koop and some of his predecessors.
A representative of the Commissioned Corps, however, said Gupta will face a "credibility gap" because he has never served in the uniformed Public Health Service.
"I am unaware of any public health experience or qualifications he has to be the leader of the nation's public health service," said Gerard M. Farrell, executive director of the service's Commissioned Officers Association. "This would be akin to appointing the Army chief of staff from the city council of Hoboken," N.J.
The selection of Gupta represents a "return to a communicator model," said Susan Blumenthal, who retired as an assistant surgeon general two years ago after 20 years in the Public Health Service.
If he is confirmed by the Senate, Gupta would provide the administration with a skilled television personality to help market what is planned to be a massive reorganization of the U.S. health system.
The Obama team already has initiated a public relations campaign aimed at mobilizing grass-roots support for eventual health reform legislation. Last week, Daschle appeared at town-hall-style meetings in Indiana and Washington to solicit public input. The sessions, captured on video and posted on the transition Web site, were among more than 8,500 local gatherings held over the holidays.
Gupta is "a great voice to get the public engaged in the discussion over health care reform," said Kenneth Thorpe, a former Clinton administration official who has become friendly with Gupta as a colleague at Emory University in Atlanta.
Gupta, the son of Indian parents, has long been drawn to policymaking. He was a White House fellow in the late 1990s, writing speeches and crafting policy for then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. He is currently associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital, Atlanta's busy downtown hospital.
Gupta's jobs as journalist and physician have sometimes overlapped. During the 2003 Iraq invasion, he was embedded with a Navy unit nicknamed Devil Docs and, while covering its mission for CNN, performed brain surgery five times, including on a 2-year-old Iraqi boy.
"I'm a doctor first," he told The Washington Post in a 2006 interview. "If I had to choose one today, I'd choose medicine."
His appointment would give Obama's administration a prominent official of South Asian descent. Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, had been the highest-ranking Indian American in the federal government as an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services from 2001 to 2003.
Gupta hosts "House Call" on CNN and in October aired a special report on presidential health called "Fit to Lead." Once CNN became aware of the negotiations with Obama, the network said in a statement, Gupta was barred from reporting on health policy. His only hesitation in taking the post involved the financial impact on his family -- he and his wife have two children and another on the way -- if he gave up his lucrative medical and television careers, sources said. The surgeon general's post pays between $143,500 and $196,700.
The experience of the last surgeon general, Richard H. Carmona, may serve as a cautionary note for Gupta. The outspoken Vietnam War veteran accused the Bush White House of muzzling him and suppressing important public health information because it did not align with the administration's political views.
To survive a job in Washington, Carmona famously observed, get two dogs, because "one of them will turn on you."
But like Carmona, who had been a SWAT team member, Gupta would arrive in Washington with some unusual survival skills. In 2004, in a show titled "Life Beyond Limits," the television doctor walked on glass shards.
"I couldn't bring myself to jump," he said on air, "but at least we both walked away without a scratch."
Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources." Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.