Last night on Larry King Live, Sanjay Gupta confirmed earlier reports that he was withdrawing his name from consideration for the surgeon general post. According to Gupta, the reasons for his decision are both professional (he would no longer be able to perform neurosurgery) and familial: “You know, I have two daughters,” he told King. “Our third daughter is now imminent. In fact, I have my phone on right here, I might get called off the set.”

Gupta was nominated for a largely-ceremonial role, but his possible selection proved highly controversial. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman slammed him for his flawed “fact-check” segment on Michael Moore’s Sicko, and health care bloggers like Gary Schwitzer and Maggie Mahar expressed concern that his insufficiently skeptical coverage of controversial drugs and preventive measures made him an unwise choice for the leading public health advocate. The Commissioned Officers Association of the U.S. Public Health Service (COA) urged the president to hire someone within their ranks. And as we reported on The Treatment, Gupta’s ethically murky relationship to pharmaceutical sponsors raised questions about his ability to serve as a sufficiently independent health expert.

COA leader Jerry Farrell suggests that Gupta soured on the position after Tom Daschle withdrew himself as the nominee for both HHS Secretary and the White House’s chief health reform officer. By resigning from the position, CNN’s chief medical correspondent avoids the prospect of being caught between the potentially conflicting priorities of two bosses, gets to keep his high-paying salary, and shirks the scrutiny that comes with being a high-profile public servant.

More importantly, it presents the CNN personality with the opportunity to pursue some of his wackier hobbies, including his bizarre quest for medical immortality. In his 2007 popular health book Chasing Life, he noted that “[T]he word echoing through the longevity chambers was that we were rapidly arriving at a time when the only limit on life span might simply be an individual’s decision to stop living. Visions of youthful 120-year-olds with several genetically perfect transplanted body parts, exchanged like a muffler or transmission, danced through my head.”  No doubt it’ll be easier to chase life away from Washington’s stuffy, overworked federal bureaucracies, where the task of providing health care coverage to America’s 45 million uninsured remains one of the biggest challenges the Obama administration will face.

Some health care activists are already circulating a petition arguing for the nomination of Dr. George Lundberg, a former editor-in-chief of the Journal of American Medical Association and CEO of WebMD. Lundberg has been called “online health care’s medicine man,” and has strong liberal credentials likely to make him a less controversial pick among those that found Gupta unacceptable.

--Marin Cogan