If Surgeon General is a Spokesman for Good Health, Gupta May Be Fit

He doesn't just play a doctor on TV. Sanjay Gupta could soon be the nation's chief doctor -- on TV and off. 

Gupta, a practicing neurosurgeon, assistant professor of neurosurgery and chief medical analyst for CNN, is expected to become the nation's next surgeon general. 

The position would make him the uniformed head of the 6,000-member Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service -- a job that carries the rank of vice admiral and dates back to 1871, when the surgeon general was the first supervising surgeon of the Marine Hospital Service.

"The reason he gets a spiffy uniform is to go on TV," "FOX News Watch" contributor Jim Pinkerton said of the position. "Surgeon general is basically a PR job, and we presume [Gupta] will be pretty good at PR."

Gupta hasn't officially accepted the job, but he said in a Twitter dispatch released Tuesday afternoon that he's definitely headed in that direction.

But not everyone thinks the U.S. needs a PR man to promote national health. CATO Institute senior fellow Michael Tanner said the role of the surgeon general is merely to be the "national nag."

"My big objection to it is that we're going to have some federal nanny telling us how to live our lives. The nanny state is personified by the surgeon general," he said.

In the age of 24-hour news, many say they are not surprised that a fresh-faced and widely known TV correspondent would join Barack Obama's administration. 

The relationship between television and government has been growing in recent administrations. George Stephanopoulus, an adviser to President Bill Clinton, became a Sunday morning news host. And the late Tony Snow went from being a speech writer for President George H.W. Bush to hosting "FOX News Sunday" and a FOX News Radio talk show to serving as President George W. Bush's press secretary.

"Most people in media are hams to begin with and [surgeon general is] a hammy job ... This is not the job of covert operative; this is the job of going on TV to talk about why you need to get a flu shot," Pinkerton said.

But Gupta, one of People magazine's "sexiest men alive," will be in a position of grave responsibility, said former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, now president of Canyon Ranch Institute and a distinguished professor of public health at the University of Arizona's College of Public Health. Carmona, who was President Bush's surgeon general from 2002 to 2006, said the position is one that the next president should consider carefully.

"When people are arguing about what does [a scientific claim] really mean ... it is the surgeon general that has the gravitas, that has the presence, that has the intellectual capability to say, 'Here is the definition of the issue, here's the clarity of the issue,'" Carmona told FOXNews.com.

The Office of the Surgeon General's Web site describes the post as "America's chief health educator," responsible for "providing Americans the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce the risk of illness and injury." 

Carmona said the job is meant for someone with a "pretty robust Rolodex," who has
given decades of service, writes policy papers, speaks out publicly, is a medical practitioner, is "well-known, respected and sought after by the peers as an owner of intellectual property." He said it's best for the candidate to have "a few gray hairs" and be someone with an "established track record."

Carmona would not say specifically whether he thought Gupta, at 39, is qualified for the job, but he did say he has been approached by several candidates seeking the position 

"There are many qualified physicians out there now who merit consideration for the position," he said.

Carmona added that the position is at the meeting point of science and policy, and the surgeon general's job is not to let politics get in the way of critical health matters. He gave the example of President Ronald Reagan's surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, who "stepped up in the face of a lot of political opposition" to conducting research on AIDS and is now "heralded as the man who brought clarity to the issue" by making conservatives realize that the disease was an emerging infection that didn't affect only gay men.

"The media characterizes us by some magnanimous event because it makes news, but every surgeon general is working every day on a variety of issues ...  it is the diligent work behind the scenes, below the radar, that advances the work of the nation," he said. 

Carmona said he has not discussed any particular potential nominee with members of President-elect Obama's transition team, but he has talked to Obama aides about a number of other positions in the public health sector and several policy matters.

Tanner, of the CATO Institute, said "inevitably" the job comes back to political issues and "lines up on left-right political aisles."

"Some surgeon generals do say some intelligent things, and yet C. Everett Koop was very polarizing and ... it inevitably gets into values questions or questions that are not the realm" of federal government, Tanner said.

Tanner noted that Koop brought the position into the limelight when he "got the old Navy uniforms out of mothballs and went on TV, and everyone went 'oooh.'"

But since the role of the surgeon general "is a media personality," according to Tanner, "in terms of a media job, [Gupta] is probably pretty good. But I thought he was doing a good job on CNN.

"He showed up every day. I watched him every Saturday morning on CNN and he told me I should exercise," Tanner said, adding, "How much I eat or exercise or who I have sex with, that's just none of [the government's] business."

Carmona, however, argued that it is the government's business when the youth of America are obese. He said children have become "little time bombs" with higher incidences and earlier occurrences of diabetes, hardened arteries and other diseases associated with poor nutrition and lifestyle. 

"Those particular diseases aren't just a health problem but a national security problem, because where will our firemen and police officers and soldiers come from" if kids don't grow up to be physically fit?

Pinkerton countered that he has great respect for the work of the Public Health Service, but the surgeon general is primarily a spokesman and not a deep policy contributor. For that, he said, Gupta will do fine.

"The issue of seat belts or smoking or obesity or exercise, you need somebody who will communicate," he said. "You find your people where you can get 'em. And if it's over at CNN, so be it."