I’ve met two former Surgeons General in my life.
I met Joycelyn Elders very briefly when she visited the clinic where I was working. (The same one, incidentally, where I worked with the recipient of the most expensive baby gift I’ve ever bought.) I may have exchanged a whole half dozen words with her, but she seemed very nice.
Ostensibly, my interaction with C. Everett Koop was more meaningful. The university in the town where I grew up has an annual lecture series, in which a prominent individual is invited to speak and admission is free. Among the notables I remember seeing were Tip O’Neill (I got to shake his hand) and Colin Powell (before he became Secretary of State); Margaret Thatcher came one year, but I wasn’t living close enough at that point to attend. And Dr. Koop was another speaker I remember.
I say “ostensibly” because, while I can recall hearing him speak and even asking him a question, I don’t have any memory of what he said, or even what I asked. It was around the time I was thinking of attending medical school, and I have a vague sense that I may have asked if he had any tips for one such as me, but really I don’t have any meaningful recollection. I actually remember my fleeting interaction with Dr. Elders more clearly.
Dr. Koop’s tenure as Surgeon General was during a period when I was too young to pay much attention to the national news. Even so, I certainly remember the advent of the warnings about cigarette smoking and the related messages that appeared on packets of smokes due to his efforts. Since I (somewhat sheepishly) couldn’t tell you the name of the current Surgeon General if you paid me, it says something about Dr. Koop’s impact on the country that his visage and message penetrated the perceptions of a middle schooler. (Okay, fine. So maybe I wasn’t a typical middle schooler. I thought “Bloom County” was wildly hilarious, even though I understood only a fraction of the jokes. Even so, I think Dr. Koop’s prominence in the national attention is inarguable.)
As I read the Times obituary after Dr. Koop’s passing earlier this week, I learned much more about the man.
His nomination in 1981 met a wall of opposition from women’s groups and liberal politicians, who complained President Ronald Reagan selected Koop, a pediatric surgeon and evangelical Christian from Philadelphia, only because of his conservative views, especially his staunch opposition to abortion.
Soon, though, he was a hero to AIDS activists, who chanted “Koop, Koop” at his appearances but booed other officials. And when he left his post in 1989, he left behind a landscape where AIDS was a top research and educational priority, smoking was considered a public health hazard, and access to abortion remained largely intact.
Koop, who turned his once-obscure post into a bully pulpit for seven years during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and who surprised both ends of the political spectrum by setting aside his conservative personal views on issues such as homosexuality and abortion to keep his focus sharply medical, died Monday at his home in Hanover, N.H. He was 96.
I had no idea he was a conservative evangelical Christian. That I was ignorant redounds to his credit.
But 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.
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 HIV was transmitted.
Koop further angered conservatives by refusing to issue a report requested by the Reagan White House, saying he could not find enough scientific evidence to determine whether abortion has harmful psychological effects on women.
No doubt Dr. Koop would have personally disapproved of my unashamed and unrepentant gayness. That does not mar my respect for him in the least. I have no desire to dictate the personal religious beliefs of anyone, and if he believed homosexuality is a sin it was his right to do so. That he put those beliefs aside to do the right thing for people at risk of infection with HIV, and that he put his personal opposition to abortion aside and reported the medical information as he understood it wins him my sincere admiration.
But the facts of his tenure raised a question with me — why is it that conservatives (so-called “social conservatives” in this case) fall all over themselves lionizing Ronald Reagan?
A little while back I co-authored a position paper for a professional society of which I was a member. The paper was about “abstinence-only” sex education for adolescents, which we opposed. (I’d link to it, but I feel compelled to at least gesture in the direction of preserving my pseudonym.) Teaching kids to wait until marriage and nothing more leaves those who can’t quite hold out until their wedding night (which is to say, a whole lot of them) vulnerable to unintended pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections. Unfortunately, this is the preferred approach to sex ed for many social conservatives.
With this in mind, I wonder at the love that is continually showered on Ronald Reagan by these very same people. To hear them tell it, he’s basically worthy of being swapped into the Trinity in place of the Holy Ghost. But contrast his relationship with Koop to that of Bill Clinton’s with Dr. Elders.
The latter was summarily canned after saying a few impolitic words about masturbation at a conference about AIDS. Shortly after having the temerity to suggest that masturbation would be a perfectly reasonable thing to include in sex ed (and after previously displaying the effrontery to suggest that there might be merit in studying drug legalization) she was given the heave-ho. But Reagan kept Koop around (albeit with an administration that didn’t cooperate with him much) for two full terms despite the incredibly high-profile stances he took in opposition to the socially conservative one. For heaven’s sake, he advocated teaching sex ed as early as third grade! Can you imagine any prominent conservative tolerating that in a hypothetical GOP administration these days? Mitt Romney would have tossed him under a bus faster than you can say “pander” three times.
What gives? Why is it that the people who seem ready to chisel the faces off Mount Rushmore and replace them with Reagan in four views apparently overlook who he really was in office? When did he ascend to being contemporary conservatism’s patron saint? How did this happen?
In any case, rest in peace Dr. Koop. You may not have approved of me, but I approve of you and what you did. Thank you for doing right by people who needed your candor and courage. I am grateful for your service to the country, and that you were allowed to do it by a president not nearly so ideologically pure as his present acolytes would care to admit.