I’m writing now because I recently received a wonderful email message from an eighth-grade student who asked about the banned words, prompting me to revisit the meaning of the episode.
For a few days, a firestorm raged over the implications of words being banned. It happened that the situation was much more nuanced, as I’d suggested was possible. Agency staff members who wanted to advocate for particular projects were advised that some words were not helpful to the process. I understand this. Words that have ordinary meanings in daily conversation may acquire political connotations in the context of discussions about government funding. We might not like to think of language as being like this year’s fashion trends, but the comparison is not inappropriate.
Anyway, the incident generated a lot of sound and fury, signifying, to quote Shakespeare, nothing. In retrospect, it revealed the extraordinary distrust that many government employees now have for political appointees and other leaders in government. It also reminds us to be vigilant. While words were not banned in this case, it could happen.
CDC also has been in the news regarding the resignation last week of director Brenda Fitzgerald, MD, who was appointed by the administration in July 2017. Dr. Fitzgerald resigned Jan. 31, the day after Politico reported that she had bought tobacco stocks since her appointment. Upon hearing this news, I said to one of my colleagues here, “If the administration is smart, they will appoint Anne Schuchat as acting, if not permanent, director.” Of course, no one asked me whom to appoint, but I walked back to my office and was pleased to learn Dr. Schuchat had been named acting director.
I made the comment about Dr. Schuchat because I have had the opportunity to interact with her over the years and have been impressed by her competence, integrity, forthrightness and other characteristics. She knows her stuff, having started out in the revered Epidemiologic Intelligence Service and operated on the front lines of many epidemics. She previously served as CDC’s acting director for six months in 2017 after Dr. Tom Frieden resigned as director and before Dr. Fitzgerald was appointed.
Dr. Schuchat is the kind of person we haven’t heard a lot about in this administration. She represents the best in government service – someone who is really smart, works incredibly hard, cares deeply, believes in service and keeps learning. From my observation of her, she is not doctrinaire and has no personal agenda. She is about service.
As someone who grew up in the Kennedy era and took seriously his message to “ask what you can do for your country,” I believe passionately in public service and still see it as an important calling. That’s why I worked for National Institutes of Health for seven years, and why I work for a public university. Dr. Schuchat represents the best of public service, and we’re fortunate she is in this position now, especially during a year in which we are experiencing a particularly bad flu season.
The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School of Global Public Health.