Need proof that the 1996 presidential election campaign already is in full swing? Look no further than the U.S. Senate, where last month Bill Clinton's nomination of Henry Foster, M.D., as surgeon general went down to defeat.
The debacle involved the rare use of a filibuster against the confirmation of a presidential appointee. The matter couldn't be called for a final floor vote because the 11 Republicans and 46 Democrats voting to break the filibuster fell three votes short of the needed 60.
The stalling maneuver wasn't about the qualifications of Foster, a highly respected obstetrician-gynecologist. And it wasn't totally about the controversial issue of abortion or Foster's credibility. In the end, Foster became a political football for the presidential ambitions of Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Phil Gramm (R-Texas).
Some have suggested it's time to abolish the post of surgeon general. Critics see the position as little more than a platform to advance a liberal social agenda. The intemperate comments Joycelyn Elders, M.D., made about sexual issues reinforced that view. Others say it could reduce wasteful government programs, but because the surgeon general's office has only a $1.4 million 1995 budget, cost is not a pivotal issue.
The position of surgeon general has served as a bully pulpit on important medical issues from anti-smoking to AIDS. Although the nation benefits from having an articulate advocate for public health matters, it might be better to eliminate the position than to subject future candidates to such crass political maneuvers.