Travels with the Government: Page Two

Secretary Gardner
Secretary Gardner

Three years after I had met with Secretary Gardner, I was ready to go back to the government. When I had seen the Secretary I didn’t have a lot of evidence. But now I was loaded for bear. This was a mistake. I should have brought an elephant gun. Republicans were in. In the sequence of events we come to President Richard M. Nixon. By chance I had known Mr. Nixon before he became president. I’d seen his interview on the David Susskind Show, and as a result, without being asked, had contributed to his presidential campaign. When Mr. Nixon was defeated I got to know him. When he lost the race for Governor of California I knew he had no chance to become President. If you can’t win your own state, you can’t win the United States.

That’s what I thought, but Mr. Nixon was nominated for President in 1968. Again I contributed to his campaign; I also contributed to the campaign of Senator Hubert Humphrey. And I did what I suppose was an unusual thing—I told each I was contributing to the campaign of the other. In this matter of public health, it was important for me to be known by whichever one became President. I was able to talk to both before the election. With Mr. Nixon, I had a long conversation about PHT at Key Biscayne.

My discussion with Senator Humphrey about PHT took place at his headquarters in New York. When we finished he said, “Listen son [that nearly got my vote], whether I win or lose, I want you to get back to me on this.” I couldn’t have hoped for anything nicer than that. After the election I was anxious to get back to the Senator but it took three months to get an appointment. We had coffee in his suite at the Waldorf-Astoria. He showed up from a bedroom in shirt sleeves, and I had the feeling we were going to get down to work. I started off enthusiastically. Then I noticed there was no response in his face, and his gaze was fixed on a picture on the wall in back of me. In about fifteen minutes my enthusiasm started to run down. When I left soon after, I had the feeling that Senator Humphrey was relieved. I was too, but deeply disappointed.

After Mr. Nixon became President I waited a few months for him to settle into position, so to speak, and then called Rose Mary Woods, his nice and well-known secretary. I spoke to her for quite a while, explaining what an urgent medical matter this was, and told her I would send her some written information. I asked her to please not talk to the President about it, just give it some thought and advise me on the best way to approach him on the matter. I’m really dumber than the law allows. Of course Rose Mary, as any good secretary would, told President Nixon about it. A few days later she called to tell me the material had been sent to Secretary of Health Finch and I would hear from him shortly. I had hoped to see the President himself, but this was fine. I waited to hear from Secretary Finch.

Robert Finch
Robert Finch

Days went by without my hearing from the Secretary and I started to get restless. By the time three months had elapsed I was beside myself (not easy). I didn’t have sense enough, or guts enough, to pick up the phone and call Secretary Finch, so I spoke to a friend who had a friend who knew the Secretary. This worked. Apparently the material Miss Woods had sent three months earlier hadn’t reached Secretary Finch on the conveyor belt that carries things to the desk of a Secretary of Health. I got a call from Secretary Finch’s secretary and an appointment was made.

Dr. Bogoch and I met with Secretary Finch in his office in December 1969. The Secretary didn’t say whether he had discussed the matter with President Nixon, but he’d had a chance to look at the material I had sent the President, the Life and Reader’s Digest articles, excerpts from letters from physicians, and a condensed version of the Worcester Jail Study. I hadn’t wanted to burden the President with medical studies. But for the Secretary of Health I brought, in a bulging briefcase, hundreds of medical studies on the use of PHT for a variety of disorders. The Secretary was impressed. After we’d been with Secretary Finch a short while, he asked Dr. Jesse L. Steinfeld, who had been appointed Surgeon General the previous day, to join us. Then, with both present, Dr. Bogoch and I briefly summarized the clinical evidence and basic mechanisms of action of PHT.

When we finished I told Secretary Finch about my meeting with Secretary Gardner three years earlier, and the advice he’d given me. Since that time so much new information had come into the possession of the Dreyfus Medical Foundation, facts not generally known, there was no question that this was now a matter for the government. To convey the information to the government, Dr. Bogoch and I proposed that we have a two-day conference with a broadly representative group of government physicians, including members of the FDA. At such a conference we would present the medical information, and the government would be able to take it from there. After we had made our proposal, Secretary Finch turned to the Surgeon General and said, “Let’s get moving on this. How long will it take you to get a group together to meet with the Dreyfus Medical Foundation? How soon can you get a conference set up?”

“Probably in a couple of weeks,” Dr. Steinfeld said.

“Well, do it faster if you can, but do it within two weeks,” Secretary Finch told him. Apparently my sense of urgency had been picked up by the Secretary. We thanked him, and after exchanging telephone numbers with Dr. Steinfeld, Dr. Bogoch and I left with the feeling that the government would soon play its part.

When we got back to New York, Dr. Bogoch and I started the hard work of getting the data organized for the conference in two weeks. Four days went by before it occurred to me that we hadn’t heard from the Surgeon General. Although Secretary Finch had given him explicit instructions to hold this meeting without delay, I thought it possible Dr. Steinfeld might be waiting for a call from me. I phoned him. His secretary said he was in conference and would call back. He didn’t call back and I called again the next day. He was still in conference. This was the beginning of my awareness that phoning the Surgeon General and getting to speak to him were not exactly the same thing.

Several days later the Surgeon General called to say that he had been thinking about the conference; he thought we should have a meeting to discuss it and would like to have Dr. Bert Brown, head of the National Institutes of Mental Health, with him. We were prepared to meet without delay, but he said he would be tied up for a week and suggested that the four of us meet in Washington on January 14. I could see that things were not going as smoothly as I’d hoped; the meeting to discuss the meeting that was supposed to have taken place in two weeks wouldn’t take place for three weeks.

On the fourteenth Dr. Bogoch and I arrived in Washington to have dinner with Dr. Steinfeld and Bert Brown. Dr. Brown was not present. The Surgeon General explained that his secretary had forgotten to invite him. Without Dr. Brown the Surgeon General felt we didn’t have a “quorum” and would have to have another meeting. We were taken aback. Still, we felt the time could be put to good use if we enlarged on Dr. Steinfeld’s sketchy background on PHT. We did our best, but we didn’t seem to have the Surgeon General’s full attention because he would frequently interject, “I don’t know how my secretary forgot to call Dr. Brown.”

Before we left Washington we discussed our next meeting with Dr. Steinfeld. Where we should meet seemed a problem to him. He said maybe we should meet in a motel. I didn’t know what that meant, but to get things moving I would have met in the men’s room. We left Washington with no definite date. I began to have the feeling that I was looking at the “Finch medical conference” through the wrong end of a telescope.

I was not born with an oversupply of patience. Even with Dilantin I am short of perfection. This is to explain to the reader that the next six months were about as frustrating and exasperating a period of time as one could hope not to enjoy. It was that long before we had another meeting with the Surgeon General, this time with Dr. Brown. Both before and after this meeting, with a skill unequaled in my experience, Jesse Steinfeld ducked and dodged, retreated and sidestepped, and left me so off balance that I felt something was going to happen any day. Each time I managed to catch the Surgeon General on the telephone, a new subject would come up for consideration, such as, what physicians we should bring with us, where the meeting should take place, how many people should attend, what medical disciplines should be represented, and who should chair the meeting. (It was finally decided that Jesse should chair it.) It could have been chaired by Little Orphan Annie because the meeting never took place.

We kept contact with the Surgeon General, and this mirage of a meeting, for well over a year. His superb talent for keeping our interest alive, without doing anything other than that, explains why we did not think of going back to Secretary Finch until it was too late. (He left office six months after we met.)

The end came in the following way. We had gotten the Surgeon General pinned down to a meeting, the date made well in advance and its importance emphasized. Dr. Bogoch and I were going to review the medical data at length, feeling that this would motivate Dr. Steinfeld to set up the conference without further delay. And I was determined at this meeting to lay it on the line—either get results, or not.

A few days before the scheduled meeting I got a telephone call from Dr. Steinfeld’s secretary saying she was sorry but we’d have to cancel the meeting for the coming Monday. I said, “But we had things all arranged for a full presentation. Why can’t he make it?”

 “He has to go out West on Monday to investigate the earthquake,” she said. (An earthquake had occurred in California a week earlier.) If Jesse had been going to California to prevent the earthquake, well, good luck. But to cancel a medical meeting of this importance to visit an earthquake that had already happened, and not even propose a new date for the meeting, was too much. I said to myself, The heck with it, and Jesse didn’t have any more of my phone calls to dodge.

I never did find out what a Surgeon General was supposed to do. He didn’t do surgery, and he didn’t command troops. Maybe the government couldn’t find out either because when Dr. Steinfeld left, the office was retired. (The Office of Surgeon General has been resurrected. We wish the new Surgeon General the best of luck.) At the time Dr. Steinfeld left government, the New York Times reported him to have said that federal health affairs were in a “kind of chaos.” He was “frustrated seeing how much good I might have achieved and how much was actually accomplished.” In a nutshell.

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