U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop addresses a AIDS rally in Boston on June 4, 1989. (AP Photo/Mark Garfinkel)
A decent enough interval has passed, I hope, to begin to think about an interesting figure of our recent history in a bit of a critical temper. C. Everett Koop died on February 25 this year, the former surgeon general of the United States, between 1981 and 1989—the only person to hold that title to have become a household name, not least for his goofy half-beard and his charming insistence on wearing his ceremonial brocaded Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style uniform everywhere. But also for, it has to be said, serving as an exemplar of honor and courage in a dishonorable time. The Associated Press put it like this:
An evangelical Christian, he shocked his conservative supporters when he endorsed condoms and sex education to stop the spread of AIDS.
He carried out a crusade to end smoking in the United States—his goal had been to do so by 2000. A former pipe smoker, he said cigarettes were as addictive as heroin and cocaine….
Koop, a devout Presbyterian, was confirmed after he told a Senate panel he would not use the surgeon general’s post to promote his religious ideology. He kept his word.
In 1986, he issued a frank report on AIDS, urging the use of condoms for “safe sex” and advocating sex education as early as third grade.
He also maneuvered around uncooperative Reagan administration officials in 1988 to send an educational AIDS pamphlet to more than 100 million U.S. households, the largest public health mailing ever done.
Koop personally opposed homosexuality and believed sex should be saved for marriage. But he insisted that Americans, especially young people, must not die because they were deprived of explicit information about how the HIV virus was transmitted.
He became a hero to AIDS activists, who chanted “Koop, Koop” at his appearances but booed other officials.
And all power to him for that. You don’t see his like much any more, in that there Republican Party. After all, the AP also noted, shortly before his appointment, he was going around the country predicting a “progression from legalized abortion to infanticide to passive euthanasia to active euthanasia, indeed to the very beginnings of political climate that led to Auschwitz, Dachau, and Belsen.”
Then, strikingly enough, he changed.
Disappointingly, the Newspaper of Record downplayed that part of the story in their obituary, merely noting in that trademark anodyne Gray Lady fashion, “Dr. Koop was completing a successful career as a pioneer in pediatric surgery when he was nominated for surgeon general, having caught the attention of conservatives with a series of seminars, films, and books in collaboration with the theologian Francis Schaeffer that expressed anti-abortion views.”