WASHINGTON—The Senate Judiciary Committee announced Monday that, after five days of intense questioning, internal debate, and outside testimony, it is no closer to confirming Dr. Richard J. Applebaum, President George W. Bush's controversial nominee to be the 73rd presidential dentist in U.S. history.
Applebaum—a Howard University College of Dentistry graduate, owner of the private practice Gentle Dental, and close friend of the Bush family—faced a seemingly unending battery of questions during the first week of his confirmation hearing, with the committee's 19 members grilling him on issues ranging from tooth decay to tartar control to the divisive "brushing side-to-side or up-and-down" question.
According to committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), however, the most important matter is restoring honor and dignity to the dentist's office.
"We cannot stand by and allow the Republicans to rubber-stamp another dentist," Leahy said on NBC's Meet The Press Sunday. "We need someone with integrity. Someone who will not ignore untreated abscesses in the posterior region of the mouth. Someone who will not simply be told that Mr. Bush flosses daily and blindly accept that as fact. Someone who is tough on plaque, yet gentle around the gums."
Applebaum's testimony thus far indicates that he has always been a vocal proponent of mercury amalgam fillings, which does not sit well with some of the Democrats in the Senate. He has, however, earned bipartisan approval for his policy on latex gloves. In addition, he has shown a commitment to featuring a wide selection of toothpaste flavors—including pina colada—and, with the exception of two occasions in the summer of 1992, has consistently consulted patients beforehand as to their favorite flavor.
His stance on fluoride treatment is unknown.
Although Applebaum's testimony has revealed a philosophy largely in line with current dental thought, his record is not unblemished. An FBI investigation launched shortly after his nomination revealed conflicting viewpoints on the issue of brushing.
"Dr. Applebaum, according to our records, in March of 1999, you told a patient by the name of Bev Kaplansky that it was advisable to brush twice a day. Yet just two years later, in February of 2001, you told one Mr. Grayson Peters that brushing should occur after every meal," a transcript of Sen. Dick Durbin's (D-IL) questioning read in part. "Well, which is it, Dr. Applebaum? Two times a day, or after every meal?"
Applebaum's refusal to answer Sen. Durbin's question has led many Democrats and some Republicans to declare that they will not support his confirmation, claiming that they do not want "another Dr. Cesario."
Dr. Samuel Cesario, Bush's previous dentist, served for a tumultuous two years before resigning in October amid accusations that he politicized the position by handing out free toothbrushes and floss dispensers to the president, that he was pro-gingivitis, and that he ordered the illegal torture of several U.S.-held detainees.
While most agree that Applebaum represents a significant upgrade from Cesario, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) was disappointed that Bush did not select the senator's own dentist, Dr. Harry Gellert, whom Specter has long championed as "a very nice man."
The media, meanwhile, has often portrayed Applebaum as a beneficiary of nepotism, as both his father and grandfather worked in the dental profession. Some critics have been even harsher. In a recent segment that has been highly circulated on the Internet and within the political blogosphere, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann called Applebaum, 52, a "spineless hypocrite who is being called on not to clean teeth, but to obsequiously kowtow to the Bush administration."
"In a 1987 checkup with a young child who shall remain nameless, you purportedly discouraged the consumption of so-called 'sweets,' but just moments later, sir, you rewarded that same child with a lollipop from the office treasure chest," Olbermann said during a "special comment" addressed to Applebaum on the program Countdown. "Are we to believe that you do not classify lollipops as 'sweets,' sir? And more importantly: Is this really the man we want scraping the gums of the leader of the free world?"
Though Bush, who is said to be suffering from a severe toothache, has urged a swift confirmation and even threatened to name Applebaum as a recess appointment, there is speculation that the Democrats may attempt to filibuster the nomination, as they did to 1968 chief justice appointee Abe Fortas and 2003 White House plumber nominee Dave.