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Editorial: Koop spoke honestly and bravely

Much like retired Supreme Court justice David Souter, C. Everett Koop called New Hampshire home. And much like Souter, he surprised official Washington, friends and foes alike.

Koop, who died last week at the age of 96, was the surgeon general under President Ronald Reagan. It’s not a job that necessarily commands a big spotlight (Quick quiz: Name President Obama’s surgeon general), but he seized the opportunity to talk honestly and bravely to the American people, telling them what they needed to hear, whether they were ready for it or not.

Koop, a 1937 Dartmouth College graduate and a physician, took his federal post in 1981, which, in the world of public health, was a time far different from our own. His chief credential was his social conservatism: He had written a popular treatise arguing against abortion. His confirmation was hard-fought – but even after months of consideration, Congress and the public had no idea what they were in for.

Koop’s tenure coincided with the frightening onset of the AIDS epidemic, at a time when prejudice against gays was already fierce. Other members of the Reagan administration largely ignored the crisis, but Koop used his post to speak frankly about homosexuality, condoms, IV drug use, even anal sex. He believed education was the best weapon against HIV and AIDS – after all, there was little treatment available yet and widespread fear. In 1986 he wrote the first comprehensive report on AIDS, which showed that it could not be spread via casual contact. In 1988, he mailed a seven-page brochure, “Understanding AIDS,” to all 107 million households in the country.

As Peter Staley, a founding member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, told the Washington Post last week, “Most of us thought that a huge part of how the crisis grew exponentially was that those in power chose to ignore it for as long as they could. (Koop) was the only person in that administration who spoke the truth when it came to AIDS.”

Koop was also a crusader against smoking, and his campaign – which included stricter warning labels on cigarette packs – helped change the public’s perceptions about and use of tobacco, which he characterized as addictive as heroin.

Even after his “retirement,” Koop continued to speak out on the issues he cared most about. In the early 1990s he appeared on television with then-first lady Hillary Clinton to discuss health care reform. And he endorsed Vermont’s plans for a single-payer health care system.

No one expected Reagan’s surgeon general to command such presence on the national stage and to speak so forthrightly about topics that, until then, were mostly taboo. But he was determined to make the most of the opportunity he was given, and the country was better off for it.

The AIDS panic and the accompanying anti-gay hysteria that came with it seem like a million years ago. But the need for truth-tellers in Washington is far from over. Koop was a terrific role model not only for physicians but also for politicians and anyone with the opportunity and ability to capture the public’s attention and imagination.

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