WASHINGTON – President Bush named a daredevil trauma surgeon from Arizona as surgeon general Tuesday, and a top administrator at Johns Hopkins University was tapped to head the National Institutes of Health.
The president announced the nominations of Dr. Richard Carmona and Dr. Elias Zerhouni, executive vice dean at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, at a ceremony Tuesday afternoon in the White House.
"We're going to make and are making an unprecedented commitment to medical research, and we're improving our public health system to make sure that we can respond quickly to any biological threat that our country may face, we're putting sound health care policies in place, and, as importantly, putting a quality team in place," Bush said. "It is my honor to nominate two fine men to head important government institutions, to take important jobs."
At NIH, the nation's premier biomedical research agency, the top post has been vacant for more than two years.
Bush has been looking for a surgeon general ever since David Satcher, President Clinton's appointment, announced last year that he would step down when his four-year term ended last month.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said "there is no specific litmus test" that was applied to the nominees, who must be confirmed by the Senate, but said it should surprise no one that the nominees share the president's view on human cloning and other controversial health and science issues.
Carmona, 52, evidently dazzled Bush's selection team with a resume that reads like a Hollywood script. Born in Harlem, Carmona, a registered independent, dropped out of high school, joined the Army and earned a G.E.D. He then became the first member of his family to graduate from college and medical school.
In 1992, the doctor grabbed headlines and inspired a made-for-TV-movie by rappelling from a helicopter to rescue a person stranded on a cliff. This and other feats helped him earn one of 10 Top Cop awards from the National Association of Police Organizations in 2000.
"When I first heard that Dr. Carmona dangled out of a moving helicopter," Bush said, "I worried that he may not be the best guy to educate Americans about reducing health risks."
In 1999, Carmona happened upon a car accident in Tucson, and stopped to help. Instead, he got into a shootout with one of the drivers.
The man, who had been assaulting a female driver, died, but not before Carmona attempted to mend his fatal wounds. The man turned out to be a suspect in the murder of his own father.
Carmona's scalp was grazed by a bullet, his second wound in the same place. He got the first while fighting in Vietnam as an Army Green Beret. As a Special Forces medic, he received the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and a Combat Medical Badge.
In 1985, he created the first trauma care system in southern Arizona. A year later, he joined the Pima County Sheriff's Department as a SWAT team member.
Zerhouni, 50, has a background in radiology, and has chaired the university's radiology department.
Born, raised and trained in Algeria, Zerhouni joined Johns Hopkins when he arrived in the United States in 1975. He recently patented an antenna-like insertion that enhances magnetic resonance imaging.
He has not published his opinions on public funding of embryonic stem cell research or human cloning, but he is said to be comfortable with restrictions placed by Bush last summer limiting federally funded research. That could earn him a testier Senate confirmation hearing though he is said to have extensive diplomatic skills.
Surgeon general and NIH director are two of several important federal health jobs that have gone vacant while Bush advisers searched for replacements for Clinton appointees.
The surgeon general is one of the nation's chief spokesperson on matters of public health and medicine, and serves as special advisor to the President and Health and Human Services Secretary, the Congress and the general population on hazards to health, disease prevention and health promotion, based on the best available scientific evidence.
As surgeon general, Carmona would, among other things, administer the 56-member Public Health Commission, which was deployed to New York and Washington on Sept. 11 and during the subsequent anthrax attacks.
The NIH has struggled in the two years without a director since the departure of Harold Varmus, with several top researchers leaving. Six institutes at NIH need new directors, positions that are expected to be filled now that the top job has been settled.
The top position at the Food and Drug Administration has been empty for a year.
The National Institutes of Health pay for more than 43,000 biomedical projects in the United States and employ more than 10,000 people. Its budget has been steadily rising over the last several years, with Bush asking for more than $27 billion for next year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.