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Obama Eyes CNN's Gupta For Surgeon General

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A well-known name has surfaced to serve as the next surgeon general. You may have seen him on TV.

(Soundbite of CNN broadcast)

Dr. SANJAY GUPTA (Chief Medical Correspondent, CNN): We talk about epidemics, and I'll just put a little bit of perspective for you. You have about 19 states that have about a quarter of their citizens that are now obese. So 25 percent of the citizens in 19 states are obese. In the early '90s, you had no state that had obesity rates that high. So, the numbers are definitely getting worse, Heidi.

BLOCK: That's Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent. President-elect Barack Obama will reportedly nominate him for surgeon general. That word comes from Washingtonpost.com. CNN says that when discussions about the new job began, the network removed Gupta from stories dealing with health-care policy and the administration. NPR's Julie Rovner is here in the studio with us to talk about this apparent pick. And Julie, Sanjay Gupta doesn't just play a doctor on TV. He is a doctor on TV, a neurosurgeon.

JULIE ROVNER: He is indeed. He has accomplished an awful lot in a very short time. He is only 39. If he, in fact, is to become the next surgeon general - I haven't been through all of them going back to 1871 - but I'm fairly confident he would be the youngest surgeon general ever. He's from Michigan. He's a graduate of the University of Michigan, my alma mater. In fact, he wrote editorials about health policy for the Michigan Daily.

And while he was studying to become a neurosurgeon, he actually was a White House policy fellow. So he worked in the Clinton White House for a year, wrote speeches for Hillary Clinton. So he has dabbled in policy along the way while he was becoming a neurosurgeon and before he went into journalism.

BLOCK: And what would qualify him for this job, which is - it's a public health job.

ROVNER: It is a public health job. It's the chief public health spokesman, really, for an administration. Over the years, it's actually had less and less power, but it has had a higher and higher profile. So he, in some ways, would be kind of a natural fit for this job, which really is, you know, having the bully pulpit and going out and really pushing a public health message, whatever public health messages that administration and really, that surgeon general wishes to put.

BLOCK: And some experience on TV certainly wouldn't be a hindrance in that.

ROVNER: No, I certainly think not.

BLOCK: This job of surgeon general has elicited a lot of controversy with surgeons general in the past. Why don't you tick through what some of the problems have been?

ROVNER: Yeah, well, starting, I think the first surgeon general who really made a mark was Luther Terry in 1964, when he came out and said that smoking was bad for you. That was really quite controversial at the time. And in the 1980s, we had C. Everett Koop, a Ronald Reagan surgeon general, who also came out against smoking, but was then brave enough really to the, really, dismay of a lot of conservatives, was very vocal about the AIDS epidemic and how it was spread. Then we had President Clinton's first surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders, who was a little bit too, perhaps, candid about children and masturbation and lost her job over it.

BLOCK: Yes.

ROVNER: Then most recently, we had Richard Carmona, who was President Bush's surgeon general, who said - who was actually fairly quiet. And we found out only after he left that he was quiet because he said he was muzzled by the administration.

BLOCK: If Sanjay Gupta were to become surgeon general, where do you think he would fit in with President-elect Obama's health-care reform plans?

ROVNER: Well, what we're hearing is that in the discussions that he had with incoming HHS secretary Tom Daschle, or now HHS secretary-nominee, is that he's been told that he would play a role in developing policy for, you know, health-care overhaul. Now, there's going to be a lot of people with a lot of sharp elbows who expect to be also playing that role, so we would see if that would come to pass. But certainly, he would, you know, have a high profile as someone who knows what they're doing when it comes to talking to the public about health policy.

BLOCK: And what's the nomination process for the surgeon general?

ROVNER: He would go before the Senate - before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Now, I should say, that has been really a graveyard for a lot of surgeon general nominees in the past. I don't anticipate there would be a problem. But again, this has been a controversial selection in the past, and we would have to see how it would go forward.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's Julie Rovner, thanks so much.

ROVNER: You're welcome.

BLOCK: NPR's Julie Rovner talking about the apparent choice of CNN's Sanjay Gupta to be the next surgeon general of the United States. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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