Even back then there were hints of the Dr. Oz we know today.
By Toby Jaffe
TV personality turned U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz was once considered a serious doctor. Indeed, in the mid-1990s Dr. Oz was a practicing heart surgeon working at Columbia-Presbyterian hospital in New York City. During that time Oz was a recipient of the Gross Surgical Research Scholarship, was the author of peer-reviewed papers, conducted complex organ transplants, and even invented medical equipment and developed innovative methodologies. Colleagues from that period had laudatory things to say about him, such as Dr. Richard Green, a fellow surgeon at Columbia-Presbyterian, who in a 2015 Vox article by Julia Belluz is quoted as saying that “If you did a poll of the staff at Columbia… And asked them, ‘If you needed a heart operation and Mehmet was there, would you want him?’ they’d say yes.”
And yet even back then there were hints of the Dr. Oz we know today. Belluz’s article notes that as early as 1998 some of Oz’s colleagues were disturbed by his propensity for spectacle and his attraction towards the “media circus,” as phrased by Jerry Whitworth, the co-founded the Cardiac Complementary Care Center at Columbia-Presbyterian. As Whitworth explained to Belluz, Oz frequently invited reporters to the Center, and would pretend to know various patients intimately (he often did not know them at all) and would perform for several minutes for cameras.
Oz has long been open about his political ambitions, pre-dating even his syndicated TV show. A 2007 profile in the New York Observer noted that Oz had “readily acknowledged that the idea of elected office has crossed his mind.” The profile’s author, Lizzy Ratner, notes that Oz enthusiastically claimed that “I’ve always enjoyed leading people.” Until relatively recently, Oz self-identified and postured as a “moderate” Republican, one who was to the left on social issues, but to the right on economic ones. Until the latter years of the Trump presidency, he was publicly pro-choice, supported marijuana legalization, supported universal health care, supported gun-control measures, and, however tepidly, acknowledged some of the potential horrors to be inflicted from the climate crisis. But his political persona began a gradual but noticeable shift in 2016.
In September of that year, Oz interviewed then-candidate Trump on his show. It was a characteristically bizarre appearance from the former president, in which Dr. Oz conducted an off-camera physical check up with Trump and summarized the results with the then-candidate on air. Trump also came brandishing two “comprehensive” (Oz’s words) medical documents, but neither host nor candidate would reveal their content. Since that televised spectacle, Oz has spiraled deeper into the MAGA universe. Trump appointed Oz to the “President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition” and regularly sought advice from him throughout 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this time, he has undergone a tremendous political shift in recent years.
His rather dramatic changes in position seem to have reached a peak in 2020, as celebrity medical “experts” like CNN’s Sunjay Gupta, ABC’s Ashish Jha, and NBC’s John Torres proliferated in TV news due to the global coronavirus pandemic. During this same time, Oz became Fox News’ resident on-air doctor.To get a sense of Oz’s newfound political identity, let us compare and contrast a couple of past statements – some even made in the recent past – with how he is campaigning today. As recently as 2019, Oz stated that as concerns the right to make reproductive healthcare decisions, that he did not “want to interfere with everyone else’s stuff, because it’s hard enough getting through life as it is.” Yet only three years later, while on the campaign trail, Oz has moved towards positions much further to the right than his previous beliefs. Back in May, shortly before the Republican primary, when asked if there were any exceptions to the idea that abortion was murder and Oz responded that “If life starts at conception, why do you care what age the heart starts beating at? It’s, you know, it’s still murder, if you were to terminate a child whether their heart’s beating or not.” He then emphasized his apparently newfound opinion that life began at conception. Oz backed off a bit from that statement in late August stating that, “I’m pro-life with the 3 usual exceptions, especially the health of the mother, but incest and rape as well.” Still, he has celebrated the Dobbs v. Jackson decision and his campaign website boasts that Oz is “100% pro-life.”
Another egregious example of Oz’s political transmutation is on the matter of hydraulic fracking. Oz for years had been on the record as opposing the practice, which requires locally drilling deep into the earth for the purposes of fossil fuel extraction. In a 2014 column, Oz rhetorically asked about “how eager the leaders of the natural gas industry would be to drink well water from a farm next to one of their drilling sites,” just one of several critical statements he has made about fracking in the past, as tracked by Kiley Bense at InsideClimateNews. Now, Oz has made quite a shift in his thinking about fracking, tweeting in March that President Biden needed to “back off” and “give us the freedom to frack!” As Brian Schwartz of CNBC pointed out in August, Oz’s has been lucratively boosted by the fossil fuel industry.
As a result, Oz’s 2022 positions have nonetheless been judged to be sufficiently MAGA by Donald Trump and the former President endorsed Oz in the Pennsylvania primary earlier this year. Trump’s vapid brand has been built over the decades by being an offensive loudmouth, but by contrast Dr. Oz built his brand by being mesmerizingly bland, disarmingly inoffensive, and concisely articulate. The Dr. Oz Show ran from 2009 until early 2022, featuring a live studio audience and peppy, fast moving segments, alongside celebrity guests. The format didn’t really differ too much from the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Ellen DeGeneres Show, or Dr. Phil. Oz’s one gimmick, which differentiated his talk show, was his once celebrated medical expertise. Oz regularly drew high ratings (though in recent years they have sagged) – particularly with women aged between 25-64 , a key demographic for daytime TV (as well as a crucial voting demographic). Viewers were charmed by the host’s charisma and his easy quick-fix medical advice. Today, there remains a contingency of Americans who swear by Oz for helping them overcome any number of ailments.
There is also a sizable contingency of experts, however, who question Oz’s credibility as a doctor, however impressive his previous credentials (and those are not without controversy, either). The doctor has had a propensity to hawk dubious products on his show, often having promoted “miracle” cures, “magical” supplements, and dubious health fads. During his show’s run, Oz often appeared as more of a snake-oil salesman than a serious doctor, and he frequently had direct financial ties to companies whose products he was promoting.
Timothy Caulfield, an expert in health law at the University of Alberta, did not mince words when he wrote in the Scientific American, “While holding a medical license, Mehmet Oz, widely known as Dr. Oz, has long pushed misleading, science-free and unproven alternative therapies such as homeopathy, as well as fad diets, detoxes and cleanses.” Caulfield later says that, “Much of Oz’s advice was bunk before the pandemic, it is bunk now, and there is no reason to assume it won’t be bunk after—even if he becomes Senator Oz.” Controversy surrounding Oz’s claims and conflicts of interest have continued into the pandemic era. It was reported in early September that Dr. Oz had direct ties to companies promoting the controversial hydroxychloroquine treatment for COVID-19. Like Trump, Oz has advocated for hydroxychloroquine despite the treatment’s lack of efficacy in treating the disease. All of this is cause for concern, as Caulfield pointed out, given that Oz could soon play a role in shaping national health and pandemic policy.
In addition to concerns about his positions relating to health policy, Oz’s campaign has embraced generic right-wing platitudes like “energy independence,” stopping “illegal immigration,” and supporting law enforcement. Other than rehashing such conservative clichés, his campaign website is bare when it comes to specific policy that would benefit the residents of Pennsylvania. As his opponent Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman delights in pointing out, Oz isn’t even a Pennsylvanian. The doctor was born in Ohio, raised in Delaware, and has lived in the New York City area and Northern New Jersey for years. He did attend medical school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia more than thirty years ago, but until his family bought a house in the Philly suburbs in late 2020 to prepare for this senate run, that was the extent of Oz’s Pennsylvanian “roots”.
Many in the national Republican party now seem to realize that Oz is a weak candidate. Trump has reportedly experienced buyer’s remorse, worrying over the summer that Oz was going to “fucking lose.” The National Republican Senatorial Committee is skeptical of Oz’s chances, according to Politico, and private GOP Donors have been remarkably reluctant to give to his campaign. The reality, though, is that Oz still has a legitimate chance to win this election. For starters, the nature of American politics is such that many Republican voters, who in 2020 made up 41% of the Pennsylvanian electorate, will vote for anyone with an R next to their name (Democrats made up 40%. Independents made up 19%). The nature of 21st century American politics is also such that frequent Fox News guests like Oz have the entire right-wing media apparatus behind them, which will serve to solidify conservative support in the state. One advantage for propaganda networks like Fox News is that they can transform otherwise lackluster candidates into far-right folk heroes. They have already begun doing this with Oz.
It is also worth remembering that there will be voters attracted to Dr. Oz the smiling TV doctor rather than the cynical, wishy-washy, and poorly prepared candidate for the U.S. Senate. The punditocracy sometimes forget that many people do not obsessively follow election campaigns. That the candidate is being marketed as Dr. Oz on campaign merchandise rather than Mehmet Oz is telling. That empty considerations such as these could lead to an Oz victory is particularly poisonous when one considers that his opponent is a rare substantive candidate for high office in America. Fetterman is a sincere and serious candidate passionately supportive of stringent labor rights, re-building the American social safety net, and fighting moral and literal corruption in politics. He has proposed comprehensive policies designed to strengthen union power and de-tilt influence away from employers and is in turn overwhelmingly backed by Pennsylvanian labor unions.
Fetterman’s plain-speaking sincerity should in theory attract voters across the political, social, and economic divide, with a potential victory coalition featuring Black and white working class voters, as well as young voters and college-educated urban- and suburbanites. It would represent an affirmation of progressive, pro-labor politics in a contested swing state – something to build on and grow. But, let’s not forget that Trump only very barely lost Pennsylvania in 2020 (after winning it in 2016), and Oz would merely need to nudge a few demographic groups over in his favor. Rural Republicans are a given, and if they turnout along historical lines, Oz will be in good shape. Oz would then only need to add a few percentage points to Trump’s 51-48% victory with Suburban voters, and has a legitimate shot of expanding on Trump’s 52-47% victory with white women. The Cook Political Report recently declared the race a “tossup,” as poll numbers have tightened.
Yes. Senator Oz. It’s a distinct possibility.
It is pathetically easy to imagine Senator Oz being anointed by his party and the credulous political press as a national leader on health policy. Whether he would actually shape U.S. Senate health policy or rather simply be a feckless mascot – or both – is an open question. It’s too early, however, to speculate on what an Oz victory over Fetterman would “mean.” On some level, the entire Dr. Oz candidacy is meaningless – except for those who would be harmed by policies all too recently embraced by Oz, or by constituents whose voices would be muted or erased, or for the entire country, as yet another sycophantic Trump loyalist heads to Washington ahead of could be the most contentious presidential election since 1860.
But such is Dr. Oz – surface level banality meeting chaos.
Toby Jaffe is a writer from New Jersey published in the New Republic, American Prospect, Paste Magazine, and the New York Review of Architecture.