Household name

Feb 28, 2013 By Steven R. Peck

C. Everett Koop was the only Surgeon General with that distinction

Quick -- who is the Surgeon General of the United States?

There are a few C-Span watchers among us who could answer that question correctly (no nerd wisecracks about the editorial writer, please), but the truth is that very few Americans know the name.

Chances are, in fact, that the only Surgeon General of the United States the average person has ever even heard of is the man who held the office more than 30 years ago.

C. Everett Koop.

Twelve surgeons general have come and gone since then, with myriad public health issues getting headlines, but Koop is the one we remember.

He died Monday at age 96, 31 years after receiving his post and almost 24 years after leaving it, and he still is the person most associated with the job.

What is it about humanity that one public figure is able to command such attention while another one is not?

The only other surgeon general who might even be in the same ballpark -- well, maybe the parking lot of the same ballpark -- is Antonia Novello, surgeon general under the first President Bush, who claimed added fame because her brother, actor Don Novello, played the comic priest, Father Guido Sarducci, on "Saturday Night Live."

The truth is that more people probably remember C. Everett Koop than Father Guido Sarducci, much less his sister.

Part of Koop's notoriety came from his name. C. Everett Koop is monicker fit for a Charles Dickens novel. Part of it was his appearance. The surgeon general is a commissioned U.S. service officer, and Koop always wore the dress blues of his commission. The surgeon general rarely had worn them before Koop. Since then they all have.

His bristly salt-and-pepper beard added to his recognition quotient. There just weren't any other cabinet-level officials who chose to look the way Koop did. He stuck out.

And he came along when the country was ready for him, seeing his job as far more than a ceremonial post. He took to the airwaves, the lecture circuit and the congressional hearing room. He spoke out on abortion, AIDS prevention, birth control, and favored sex education in schools for children -- all while serving under two conservative Republican presidents.

He angered Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. He refused to be pigeon-holed by any political ideology and always maintained an aura of independence.

Needless to say, he probably would never even be nominated for the job today, much less confirmed.

He worked to restore the prestige and morale of his department and his office. The nation's top public health official is an important position in this country. Koop knew it and wanted others to realize it as well.

And he had an unquestioned air of authority to him that couldn't be ignored and must have been difficult to challenge. It is hard to imagine a surgeon general, serving under either a Republican or a Democrat, being so outspoken today and surviving in the job for most of a decade, which is how long Koop had his title.

He was the right man for the right time. There aren't a lot of those in our history, but Koop fit the bill.

By the way, the current Surgeon General of the United States is Regina Benjamin. She is a distinguished physician and administrator who has held the job for almost four years now.

She shouldn't be disappointed that so few people know her name. Since Surgeon General C. Everett Koop had the job, it's been a hard act to follow.

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