A story in the July 11 New York Times reported that “former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona told a Congressional panel that top Bush administration officials repeatedly tried to weaken or suppress important public health reports because of political considerations.” He said that he was told not to speak about secondhand smoke, stem cells, global warming or sex. What would make a government want to distort the truth to this extent?

You often see little kids squeezing their eyes closed and putting their fingers in their ears so they don’t have to see (or hear) anything they don’t want to. When we grow up, there are still many facts we would rather not hear (about the illness or death of a loved one, for instance), but we no longer expect to be able to avoid learning bad news.

It’s kind of like saying, “If I don’t know about it, then it doesn’t exist.” A lot of otherwise good Germans once said this about the concentration camps that their Jewish neighbors– who seemed to be mysteriously disappearing–were being sent to.

Dr. Carmona said that another subject he was told not to speak about was the deplorable state of health care in prisons, because the government would then feel obliged to spend money for improvements in this area. Should we care about something like this, when the average law-abiding citizen doesn’t have adequate health care? Carmona thinks we should because “these people go back into the community and take diseases with them. This is not about the crime. It’s about protecting the public.”

If you take that last sentence apart, or “diagram it” as my English teachers used to say, I think it helps to understand what’s happening here. The people who want to keep things hidden feel that they have committed some sort of crime– maybe not one that’s strictly illegal, but more of a crime against humanity. They may or may not be ready to face this about themselves, but they are certainly not ready to admit it publicly.

These “crimes” are things like putting your own reelection (and that of your party members) ahead of what you know in your heart is good for the country, of being unwilling to offend big business interests that might bankroll your next election, even when they want to do things that harm the environment, of being worried about how history will judge you, but not worried enough to do the right thing. But doing the right thing, despite what others may say about you at the time, is what history tells us that truly great leaders have always done.

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