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Tuesday, Jul 14, 2009, 1:47 pm

With Obama’s Surgeon General Pick, Second Time’s the Charm

By Lindsay Eanet
Much of what is common knowledge about the position of Surgeon General is what we read on cigarette cartons and other labels, warning of the dangers of certain additives. Yes, the job's responsibilities are largely informal and not entirely well-defined.

But it's the symbolic more than the tangible that is important with Obama's latest pick for the position. As Gardiner Harris explains in the New York Times report on the nomination of Regina Benjamin:

Since the job of surgeon general is largely ceremonial, the most important thing about the selection, which must be approved by the Senate, is what it tells of the president making it. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush picked a surgeon who served on police SWAT teams. President Bill Clinton picked an outspoken academic and then, when she got into political trouble, settled on a reserved public health official.

So it's probably good that Obama's first nomination, celebri-doctor and CNN correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, withdrew his name from the list of nominees. Obama gets a mulligan and he uses it well, choosing Benjamin, a healthcare advocate by and for the people who, if appointed, could maybe actually get things done.

The confirmation of Gupta would have done little else than serve as a reflection of Obama's celebrity status, serving to please some sort of political mainstream. But choosing Benjamin redraws him, once again, as the community organizer admired by the formerly disaffected, the Obama for whom "Yes We Can" was more than a catchy campaign chant.

Dr. Gupta, a prominent neurosurgeon and regular talking head on CNN, has seen his share of controversy. In a debate with Michael Moore over his healthcare industry-disparaging doc Sicko, Gupta said Moore "fudged facts" and accused Moore of sensationalism. Upon fact-checking, Moore was found to be correct.

(During the debate, Gupta's primary source, Paul Keckley was a member of a GOP think tank who had been in business with insurance giants like Blue Cross, according to a report from MediaMatters. And as later reported, some of Gupta's facts were completely inaccurate. So not only would America have had a Surgeon General who puts his faith in the healthcare industry first, but one who has given wrong information to the public in the past.)

Enter Regina Benjamin.

A quick curriculum vitae of Benjamin: In 1990, Benjamin opened the Rural Health Clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala., a shrimping town where nearly 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. She was the town's only doctor, and due to the socioeconomic circumstances of most of her patients, she often would provide treatment for free, according to a Time magazine report.

Although Hurricane Katrina destroyed the clinic, she continued to make the rounds at patients' homes in a pickup truck and sought an interpreter to help with patients who were immigrants from Southeast Asia, according to this Huffington Post profile.

In 2002, she became the first African-American woman to preside over a state medical society when she took the office of president of the Alabama Medical Association, and was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant last year.

It's Benjamin's level of commitment and willingness to put the needs of her patients before her own that sets her apart from other candidates and past officeholders, and the virtue which Obama continues to cite in explaining his choice. As Bayou La Batre mayor Stan Wright pointed out in the NYT report, financial constraints have hit the clinic hard and she has yet to receive about $300,000 in salary.

As Obama continues to reaffirm his goals of making healthcare more affordable and accessible for millions of uninsured Americans, having someone on board who has worked so closely and consistently with the demographic he keeps promising to help, even as a predominantly ceremonial figure, may help bring about healthcare reform after all.

Lindsay Eanet is an In These Times editorial intern and a journalism student at the University of Missouri.

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