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Other views: Koop immortal as surgeon general

6:02 PM, Feb. 27, 2013  |  Comments
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Quick now: Who is the surgeon general of the United States? And what does he or she do?

Odds are that not one in a hundred people could answer those questions, now or through most of the office's 142-year history. The job and its occupants rarely find the spotlight.

C. Everett Koop - colorful, frank and controversial - was the strikingly effective exception.

Koop, who died Monday at the age of 96, was a lightning rod from the moment Ronald Reagan nominated him to be the nation's chief advocate for public health. Koop, a pediatric surgeon, was an outspoken opponent of abortion, so Democrats tried to kill the nomination, reflexively assuming that Koop would use his office as a pulpit.

And so he did. But never to preach religion. To the frustration of his allies, he believed that the surgeon general had no more right to push his personal beliefs on others than any other doctor does. Instead, he trained his formidable media skills on two scourges of the age: smoking and the emerging AIDS epidemic.

Bearded, bespectacled and clad in the admiral's uniform of the Public Health Service, he struck quite an image: the authoritative and honest family doctor giving his patients the truth, and advice on how to handle it, no matter how discomforting either might be. And in an age when discussion of sexual matters was much more private than it is today, AIDS was very discomforting.

The disease was initially seen as exclusively the consequence of gay sex - God's revenge on sinners, as some saw it. Yet there was Koop on television talking explicitly about the way AIDS is transmitted and the way that transmission is prevented: condom use.

Many complained; Koop didn't care. The facts were the facts, and only through knowing them could the public be protected.

Nor did he care much about pressure from the tobacco industry, finally on the run 20 years after Koop's most famous predecessor, Luther Terry, proclaimed that smoking tobacco kills people. Koop did everything he could to deter smoking, and during his tenure, cigarette use dropped from 33 percent to 26 percent.

To a significant degree, Koop's success was a product of his times. Absent a frightening new epidemic and political controversy, no public health official could command the attention that Koop did. In fact, Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is cut very much in the Koop mold. But few will know it unless a flu pandemic puts him on TV every night.

Koop's example would be better heeded in the wider political realm, where the public is so rarely given the truth that it needs to make tough choices, whether about its malignant budget problems or curing its stunningly inefficient health care system.

C. Everett Koop never found a way to make the truth go down easily. He just dug out the facts, proposed a treatment, and put the matter up for discussion.

And lo and behold, it worked.

USA TODAY

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