Dr. Mehmet Oz, the controversial television host and physician, announced Tuesday that he is — for some reason — running to become a U.S. senator.
If we’re being blunt, it’s a really weird choice for Oz, who has never run for any other office. He will be running for the Republican nomination in Pennsylvania, a state where he apparently doesn’t have his own home. He reportedly only let his staff know he was quitting his syndicated show about 15 minutes before his announcement went live. Politico recently quoted a Pennsylvania GOP strategist on the local vibe regarding Oz’s then-unannounced bid as saying the “pretty much universal response has been ‘LOL.’”
But if — if! — Oz manages to not only win the GOP primary but take a seat in the Senate, he won’t be the only physician there. There’s been more than 50 medical doctors turned senators through the years, according to the Senate Historical Office, with four currently serving. To be honest, for all his questionable practices, Oz may not be the worst doctor to ever sit in the Capitol — although he’s probably up there.
Given his career trajectory, it’s easy to forget that on paper Oz is a really good doctor.
Given his career trajectory since first appearing on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2004 and launching “The Dr. Oz Show” in 2009, it’s easy to forget that on paper Oz is a really good doctor. You don’t become a professor of surgery at Columbia University through hucksterism alone. But hey, look no further than former Housing Secretary Ben Carson, once a famed neurosurgeon, and his beliefs about the Egyptian pyramids to disavow yourself of the idea that skilled hands and a medical degree automatically translate into the type of person we want serving in government.
Oz has become much more closely linked to his show’s endorsement of dubious products pitched as cure-alls or weight loss magic, often obscuring the pseudoscience behind them. It seems the last time Oz visited the Senate was in 2014, when he was a witness at a commerce subcommittee hearing on "protecting consumers from false and deceptive advertising of weight loss products." As you might guess from the title, it didn’t exactly go well for him.
“More than once there has been criticism from some reporters who took exception to my use of colorful language in the supplement segments,” Oz lamented in his written opening testimony, noting that following an episode focused on the “miracle” (his word) of green coffee extract, he spent a half-hour warning viewers about ads that use his name without his permission.
That didn’t stop the senators at the hearing from raking him over the coals. "People want to believe you can take an itty-bitty pill to push fat out of your body," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the chair of the subcommittee at the time, told Oz, pointing out his lack of backing from his peers. Two years later, the then-senator called Oz a “snake oil” salesman on MSNBC during a discussion of Oz’s interview with then-candidate Donald Trump about his medical history. (McCaskill is now an MSNBC political analyst.)
The good news for Oz is that he’ll be in good company in the GOP caucus if he wins next year. A 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that compared to the early years of Congress, only a small number of legislators between 1960 and 2004 were physicians: only 1.1 percent, compared to 4.6 percent in the first 50 Congresses.
So how does Oz stack up when held up against senatorial sawbones of years gone by? Well, the advances in medicine since 1789 can make it hard to make one-to-one comparisons. But in the 20th century, at least, two stand out for their outspoken support of the now-discredited practice of homeopathy, where medicines are diluted to the point of ineffectiveness: Sens. Jacob H. Gallinger, R-N.H., and Royal S. Copeland, D-N.Y.
Copeland, first elected to the Senate in 1922, wasn’t shy about his medical views. He had previously served as a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Michigan medical school’s homeopathic department and dean of the New York Homeopathic Medical College. But his most lasting contribution to his field came just prior to his death, when Copeland ensured that “homeopathic medicines were included when he sponsored the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938,” a Knoxville Focus column said.
But you know who does still support homeopathy? None other than Dr. Oz.
Meanwhile, Gallinger, the longest serving physician in Senate history, during his career served both as the head of the Senate GOP (as would fellow physician Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., 90 years later) and Senate president pro tempore — making him possibly the highest-ranking doctor to serve in the federal government. He also at one point claimed homeopathy “was destined to be universally accepted among medical men.” That has not been the case, with the Food and Drug Administration in 2017 moving to crack down on the sometimes-harmful $3 billion-a-year industry.
But you know who does still support homeopathy? None other than Dr. Oz, who in 2011 “excitedly stated on his show that homeopathy could ease people’s aches and pains without the use of prescription medication” before revealing that “his family uses homeopathic treatments,” a 2015 journal article said. He also at one point was hawking a “homeopathy starter kit” on his website.
More recently, the number of physicians in Congress began to rise in the 1990s, and, interestingly, the overwhelming number to have assumed office have done so as Republicans. In 2014, then-Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., gave his theory for why that might be to The New York Times:
As for the reason so few of them are liberal — out of the 17 medical doctors in the House, Representative McDermott is one of only four who are Democrats — he said he believed that politically conservative physicians were more likely to chafe at the direction of changes in health care, with greater oversight by the government and a more regulated role for the private sector. “It’s a fundamental debate about what is in the public good,” he said.
In the current Congress, there are 13 physicians in the House (only two of whom are Democrats) and the aforementioned four Republicans in the Senate. So how does Oz rate when compared to his potential contemporaries? Well, Oz definitely has the best pedigree with his Ivy League degrees. (Harvard University for undergrad and University of Pennsylvania for medical school, to be exact.) But his response to Covid-19 is about on par with the rest of his GOP colleagues — which is to say not great.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said earlier this year that “hatred for Trump” was the only thing stopping research into supposed Covid cures like ivermectin. Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, has expressed doubt that masks are actually effective at preventing Covid’s spread (they are) and in April joined other physicians in Congress to urge Americans to consider getting vaccinated, presenting the measure as a personal choice.
Meanwhile, Oz spent the early days of the pandemic touting the Trump-favored anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a great way to stave off the virus. He also suggested, as he has so often on his show, that “boosting your immune system” was a way to potentially fight against infection. And while he does support vaccines, it’s likely only a matter of time before he joins Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the other senators with a medical shingle, in decrying President Joe Biden’s vaccine (or testing) mandate for private employers.
Look, if I ever need a lung transplant and had to choose a sitting senator to do the deed? Sure, then I’d probably tap a Sen. Oz to go to work. But that’s not why he’s asking Pennsylvania Republicans to put him on the ticket next November. Oz’s quackery may fit right in among the medical malcontents of the Senate — but that’s not exactly proof that he’s what the doctor ordered for this country.