With his face plastered for weeks on every TV set in America, CDC director Tom Frieden is suffering from an advanced case of media overexposure. While meant to reassure, his clinical demeanor and calculated speech patterns as he explains the U.S. Ebola outbreak often come across as patronizing — even smug.
No doubt that smugness factored heavily in the Obama administration’s Friday decision to fire Frieden as the face of the federal Ebola response. Replacing him is “Ebola czar” Ron Klain, a Democratic hack with decades of experience in the political shark tank. President Obama expects Klain to alleviate the public’s fear without talking down to people — a skill that seemed to elude his predecessor.
Frieden’s style should have come as no surprise to the White House. As undisputed captain of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s nanny state, Frieden made his political career by lecturing, pressuring, and outright coercing people into making healthy “choices.” From tobacco to trans fats to table salt, the ex–New York City health commissioner took a “papa knows best” approach to public health, confidently exercising control over the most basic aspects of millions of peoples’ lives.
A native New Yorker, Frieden took the job as Bloomberg’s commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in 2002 — on one condition. “I told them if the mayor is willing to take on the tobacco industry I’ll come back,” he told the New York Observer in 2004, “but if he’s not there’s no point.” Luckily for him, the mayor agreed with the doctor’s plans to restrict smoking so closely that one Bloomberg official described it as a “mind-meld.”
The architect of the city’s wide-scale 2002 smoking ban, Frieden once claimed tobacco executives were lower life forms than tuberculosis bacilli. But he had a change of heart after one of those executives complained of hate speech. “Now I just stick to the facts and call tobacco executives mass murderers,” he said.
Not content with banning smoking virtually everywhere, Frieden spearheaded a massive cigarette-tax spike in 2002, raising the city’s rate from eight cents per pack to $1.50 and creating the most vibrant black market for tobacco products in the nation. He even suggested that tobacco companies be nationalized, with the feds distributing cigarettes to proven addicts and banning them for everyone else.
Freiden continued his anti-tobacco crusade as CDC head, this time targeting e-cigarettes, nicotine vaporizers free of unhealthy and cancer-causing chemicals. While lacking any medical evidence, the doctor’s position on this new technology is just as uncompromising: E-cigs will “reglamorize cigarettes” and inevitably lead struggling smokers to return to the cancer sticks, thus causing “more harm than good.”
While tobacco may be Frieden’s chief bugbear, the former commissioner left no stone unturned in his quest to limit New Yorkers’ lifestyle choices. He earned the ire of foodies and the restaurant industry by banning trans fats, following that up with a relentless campaign to ban salt from restaurants and packaged foods.
He compelled restaurants to post calorie counts on menus and menu boards in 2006 — an initiative that later studies showed actually increased the number of calories consumers purchased. And he was godfather of the odious — and ultimately illegal — ban on “super-sized” soda, pushing a soda tax even after Bloomberg abandoned the idea in favor of portion control.
Frieden’s patronizing attitude during the Ebola crisis comes as little surprise. Since 2002 the doctor has made a career out of condescension, moving from one excessive regulation to another in his attempt to equate private choices with public health.
— Brendan Bordelon is an editorial associate at National Review Online.