A Surgeon General's Warnings
As for the uniform, it was deliberate effort to try to raise the morale of 6,000 Public Service employees.
Do you ever feel as though you've lost control of your own life, being so much in the public eye?
As surgeon general, I had to learn the very fine line between exposure by the press and overexposure. I nearly crossed that line a couple of times in office. I had said, Don't, Don't, Don't on issues like tobacco, drinking, and nutrition. The most sensitive barometer in the country is editorial cartoons, and I started getting a flood of cartoons, all with the theme of Dr. Nag. So I cancelled my next three press conferences and remained silent for about eight weeks, even though there were other issues I wanted to address: radon, fluoride, et cetera. I could have lost my constituency then.
Now that I'm retired, the main effect is simply public recognition. I avoid restaurants and order room service a lot. Nobody's ever nasty; it's just that I feel embarrassed when I walk into a big restaurant and I see everyone stop with their spoons halfway to their mouths, and then as I walk between tables I hear words like Kook, general, surgeon. And then there are people who come up and say, "You mean to tell me the surgeon general is eating an olive!" I answer, "Well, if you look as well and feel as well when you're 73, give me a call!"
There were a lot of rumors about your "abrupt" departure.
Everybody knows that I wanted to be secretary of Health and Human Services. I said, that if I didn't get it I'd be disappointed for a few days, but happy about it for the rest of my life. And that's how it turned out. Now I realize I can accomplish more in the private sector than would be possible as secretary.
Are you ever going to tell the behind-the-scenes story?
Yes. I have a book of memoirs under contract with Random House. It won't be a kiss-and-tell book, but it will tell the truth.
Did you leave office with a bittersweet taste, or did you feel it was time?
It was time. And the more I see the opportunities out there, the more I realize it was time. I have absolutely no bitterness about the early days in Washington nor about not being appointed to the secretary's job. The things I can do in the future are legion. In fact, this is the first time in my life that I've ever been sorry I'm as old as I am. I don't know how much time I've got—I hope three to five years, at least.
You'll stay in Washington?
Yes. I want to continue the role I've had with the public. I think I have their trust. I hope they see me as a credible individual who has never lied to them, and I would like to continue to serve by writing, by speaking, and through the medium of television.