Dr. Gupta Goes To Washington

Have you seen the heartwarming new movie about the CNN medical journalist who gets offered the position of Surgeon General?

Oh, I know, it’s not a movie, but it will be. If he takes the job and survives the vetting process (unlike Bill Richardson), he’ll be kind of a milestone for cable TV talking heads; the late Tony Snow was also a milestone, of course, but he was press secretary, a position where it might seem normal to have a journalist around. But Gupta is being offered a big cabinet post because it’s related to the subject of his journalism; it paves the way for Attorney General Van Susteren (or even, dare we say it, Grace?) and Commerce Secretary Velshi. Just think, he’ll get to go from giving medical advice to millions of Americans to… well, giving medical advice to millions of Americans, but without getting to appear on TV quite as often.

Having said that, I think that Presidential cabinet appointments are more fun than significant — they’re entertaining for political junkies and TV pundits (meaning that Dr. Gupta might have a chance to talk about the medical ramifications of his own appointment), but I don’t know how much difference it makes who the specific appointee is. I mean, obviously it’s better to have a good appointee than a bad one, and a President is fair game for any dubious appointment he makes, but it usually turns out that no matter who the person is, what his background is, or what his own opinions are, his work will wind up reflecting the views and preferences of the person who appointed him. That’s because, well, it should; the job of political appointees is to carry out the President’s policies, not make their own.

We saw that with Bush: a lot of pundits predicted that the Bush administration’s foreign policy would go a certain way based on the fact that he’d appointed cuddly moderate Colin Powell as Secretary of State and Gerald Ford leftover Donald Rumsfeld at Defense. Instead, of course, Powell became a reflection of Bush’s will, because that was his job and his duty as SoS. Obama’s appointees will similarly wind up doing more or less what Obama wants, because, again, that’s their job. So appointees are fun as a) a clue as to what the President is looking for in that department and b) a chance to wonder what the hell he was thinking in picking [fill in name]. But ultimately it’s the guy at the top who sets the tone. To bring it all back to TV, it’s like the tone and style of a TV show usually stays more or less the same even when staff writers leave, and a shark-jumped show doesn’t usually un-jump just because some of the original staff writers come back; because the showrunner, the President of the writing staff, sets the tone for the show, and every episode reflects the showrunner’s preferences, no matter who wrote it. So the President is like a showrunner, and the cabinet appointees are… story editors? supervising producers? I didn’t say it was a perfect analogy.

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