Would-be Surgeon General stitched up

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The Independent Online
Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, was in Washington this week, railing at the failure of the US Congress to respond swiftly and unequivocally to the United Nations call for funding of the rapid-reaction force in Bosnia. He was plainly irritated by the dogged obstructionism of the likes of Bob Dole, the Republican majority leader in the Senate.

Tell Henry Foster about it. Yesterday, after nearly five months of tortuously repetitive deliberation, the Senate killed off Dr Foster's attempt to win the nomination for the largely ceremonial post of US Surgeon-General. From the moment President Bill Clinton announced on 2 February that Dr Foster was his candidate for the job, the Nashville obstetrician has seen himself transformed into a political ping-pong ball in the arena of American presidential politics.

Ostensibly the question at issue has been whether the doctor is qualified to be Surgeon-General. In truth the question has been whether Mr Dole could manipulate the outcome of the debate in such a way as to improve his chances of winning the Republican nomination for next year's presidential election, a mere 17 months away.

Senator Edward Kennedy dwelt at length on Dr Foster's virtues on the Senate floor yesterday before crying out, as if in painful acknowledgement of the hopelessness of the cause, "How many more political primaries are we going to have on the floor of the United States Senate?"

Dr Foster, who is black, won a "Thousand Points of Light" award five years ago from President George Bush for his work both in research medicine and in combating teenage pregnancy among America's poor. But, as Republicans gleefully discovered after his nomination, he had carried out 39 abortions during a 38-year career in obstetrics and gynaecology.

Mr Dole and his main Republican presidential rival, Senator Phil Gramm, promptly revealed their intention to use the laborious nomination process, a saga which became a thinking man's version of the OJ Simpson trial, as an opportunity to display their anti-abortion credentials. The battle was on for the hearts, votes and campaign funds of the Republican Party's Christian right. For it is a truth universally acknowledged that for a Republican nominee to win the presidential candidacy he must have the support of the Christian militants - a group whose views on abortion differ from the majority of the US electorate, who favour the woman's right to choose.

Mr Dole emerged the winner by using procedural clout to kill off Dr Foster's bid on a technicality; the Senate voted not to bring his nomination to a vote. He needed 60 senators to vote for a final vote but only 57 did. Had 60 voted in favour, then Dr Foster would have needed only 51 votes - a majority of one - to be confirmed as Surgeon-General. As it is, his dreams have bitten the dust.