By Michael D. Shear and Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 6, 2009
Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent, said last night that he will not leave his television career to become the U.S. surgeon general and urged whoever gets the job to raise its profile as the nation grapples with how to reform health care.
Gupta, who had been described as the leading candidate for the public-health post, withdrew his name even as President Obama hosted a health-care summit at the White House that Gupta did not attend.
Speaking on "Larry King Live" hours after news of his decision broke, Gupta said he did not want to stop performing brain surgery, leave his television career or spend extended time away from his family.
"It really came down to a sense of timing more than anything else," Gupta told King on the show. "This job that we have collectively takes us away from our children. . . . I just didn't feel like I should do that now."
He said the surgeon general "has to have a little bit of a higher profile. Whoever takes this job has to be out there really advocating the issues of public health. At no time is it probably more important than right now, as we're dealing with health-care reform. These issues really go hand in hand."
The decision means that the often low-profile job will not get the mass-media jolt from the appointment of the television celebrity. Gupta, a journalist and neurosurgeon who continues to practice medicine, has become ubiquitous on CNN, where he hosts a half-hour show called "House Call" and appears on numerous other programs.
Gupta is the latest in a string of dropouts among likely candidates for top posts in Obama's administration. Also Thursday, two people who had been leading candidates for jobs at the Treasury Department withdrew abruptly.
Annette L. Nazareth took her name out of the running to be the deputy under Secretary Timothy F. Geithner. And Caroline Atkinson, the pick for undersecretary for international affairs, also withdrew her name.
After a rapid start, Obama's endeavor to fill out his government has stalled amid intense inquiries into the background of nominees and efforts to meet the president's strict rules against lobbyists.
Sources had confirmed weeks ago that Obama had offered the job to Gupta and that the neurosurgeon had intended to take it and would leave his network job. But no further progress was evident, especially after Obama's first choice for secretary of health and human services, former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), was derailed by tax problems.
An administration official said last night that Gupta "was under serious consideration for the job of surgeon general. He has removed himself from consideration to focus more on his medical career and his family."
Gupta, who was once named one of the "sexiest men alive" by People magazine, was never officially named to the post and continued to report for CNN. Sources said the medical journalist told CNN executives that he wanted to devote more time to his medical practice and to his duties at the network.
But one source close to him said Gupta was very disheartened by Daschle's fate and fearful he was not going to get a prominent role in the health-care reform process. Gupta has built a lucrative media empire that includes appearances on CBS as well as CNN and book deals. Soon after his interest in the job became public, he had expressed concern to friends about the financial impact on his wife and children.
Gupta last night played down the financial impact, saying that entering public service means a willingness to accept less money.
"That's a sacrifice we were willing to make. . . . That really wasn't a consideration for me," he told King.
He also waved aside questions about what happened to Daschle. But his answers hinted at his expectation that helping Daschle to revamp the nation's health-care system had been part of his discussions with the White House.
"I had a lot of conversations with the White House folks," he said. "I think there was a real melding there."
The choice of Gupta as surgeon general -- the head of the commissioned core of the U.S. Public Health Service -- was controversial from the start, as critics questioned his qualifications and experience.
Some members of the country's health service say the surgeon general's job should be a nonpartisan, nonpolitical position that is not involved in any policy debates that roil Washington.
"It would be really nice to have them appoint someone whose focus would not be health reform or other administration priorities that could be seen as political," said Douglas B. Kamerow, a former assistant surgeon general.
He said the person holding the country's top medical post should "concentrate on giving good, evidence-based recommendations on personal health care and public health to the American people."
Sources close to Gupta said that's not what he wanted from the post, the acceptance of which would have forced him to abandon what is already a large public podium from which he can inform the public about medical conditions and their treatment.
Had he accepted the post, Gupta would have been the first surgeon general to be a household name since C. Everett Koop popularized the office by waging a campaign against smoking.
Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.