Dr. Koop and the True Meaning of Public Service

The nation's doctor was well-beloved.

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In this photo released by Starpix, C. Everett Koop, former Surgeon General of the United States holds an example of the hollow rubber ball used in the game of "stickball" at the premiere and DVD release of "New York Street Games," Thursday, May 20, 2010, in New York. The documentary takes a look at games played on the streets of New York as seen through the eyes of prominent New Yorkers.
In this photo released by Starpix, C. Everett Koop, former Surgeon General of the United States holds an example of the hollow rubber ball used in the game of "stickball" at the premiere and DVD release of "New York Street Games," Thursday, May 20, 2010, in New York. The documentary takes a look at games played on the streets of New York as seen through the eyes of prominent New Yorkers.

One of America's enduring national treasures, C. Everett Koop, M.D., passed away earlier this week. If you can bear with me for a few moments, I'd like to remember the profoundly meaningful life of a man who once taught me an immensely valuable lesson—the secret to his own, successful life.

I became Dr. Koop's friend later in his life—long after he'd challenged senior White House officials working for President Ronald Reagan over the irrefutable science at the very center of the smoking and AIDS epidemics, while serving as Surgeon General in the U.S. Public Health Service.

[MORE: Koop, Who Transformed Surgeon General Post, Dies in N.H.]

For those who have forgotten Dr. Koop's profound public stances on those two issues (because they occurred more than two decades ago), he essentially told the truth about the science of smoking and AIDS, at a time when the Republican Party was beginning its long march into an anti-science alternative universe.

On smoking, Dr. Koop used his own bully pulpit (and a second Surgeon's General report) to make quite certain that big tobacco companies could no longer confuse the public about whether smoking causes lung cancer. It does—and we have Dr. Koop's courage to thank in no small part for that knowledge.

On AIDS, Dr. Koop used that same bully pulpit to say clearly, publicly, and often that latex condoms could prevent the spread of HIV, and thereby reduce the deadly toll of the AIDS epidemic. It was an evidence-based public health message that made perfect sense scientifically, but still required considerable political courage to say in public during the Reagan White House years.

Dr. Koop became quite famous as Surgeon General for his public stances on those and other public health issues during the Reagan administration. There was a time, for about a decade or so, that Dr. Koop was easily the most recognized medical figure in America. He always wore his white Public Health Service uniform during TV interviews, and his willingness to speak the truth endeared him to the public.

[SEE: Obama Names Regina Benjamin as Surgeon General]

I came to know Dr. Koop when we both spent a year of our lives convincing Congress of the need for the Food and Drug Administration to regulate cigarettes, ban tobacco advertising aimed at children, abolish the tainted Tobacco Institute, and approve a global tobacco legal settlement.

Dr. Koop was tireless—and willing to meet endlessly with dozens of U.S. senators to press the case. And, in nearly every instance, both Democratic and Republican senators were more than happy to hear Dr. Koop out, because he spoke with conviction and integrity on the issue. That's a rare thing in Washington.

During that time, I asked Dr. Koop what it was like to walk through a public place (like Reagan National Airport) and have every head turn and stare at him as he walked by.

"It's perfectly fine with me," he said. "It would be one thing if they were glaring at me in anger. But they're not—so it's OK."

And he was right. Nearly every stare eventually turned to a smile of recognition. Some would close the distance just to say "thank you" for being willing to tell the truth about very difficult public health issues, and ask to shake his hand. He always did. He never refused.

[HEALTH NEWS: Why Aren't Americans Healthier?]

Which then led me to ask him once how he'd come to be "Dr. Koop" in the first place—the politically appointed Surgeon General who had a legion of supporters, fans, admirers, and well-wishers that was nearly limitless, and a network of professional allies who would seemingly go to the ends of the Earth for him.

"I always say yes," Dr. Koop told me. "When someone asks me to do something for them, I always say yes. That's the secret of success," he told me. "It means that, on some days, I'll have to finish a couple of dozen tasks at hand. I always finish them, and I never ask for anything in return. But they remember."

That answer, quite honestly, made no sense to me. How in the world could you say yes to every request, whether it came from the president of the United States or your next door neighbor? How was that even possible or practical?

But as I came to know him, I learned how. Dr. Koop just committed himself to service—and he never wavered from that commitment. And that, I learned, is how you succeed, and build an enormous network and reservoir of good will in return.

[PHOTOS: Michelle Obama Holds 'Let's Move' Cafeteria Cook-Off]

I adopted Dr. Koop's model (altered slightly to living your daily life as a "relentless, positive storm"). I have always been grateful to him for this life lesson. It is at the heart of public service, and a lesson that few in Washington's national government seem committed to these days. You act not because you expect anything in return—but simply because you want to be of service and do what's right.

Which is too bad. We need Dr. Koop's ability to speak truth to power, his relentless courage of conviction, and his unparalleled willingness to use science and evidence to engage divisive political and policy discussions at the national level. Dr. Koop changed the public face of both smoking and AIDS, and millions of Americans owe him a debt of gratitude for his public courage on both issues.

But,for those of us who knew and loved him, we will also remember Dr. Koop as a tireless public servant who lived in the only way that made any sense to him—to always say "yes" when others asked him for his help. That, to me, is what it means to be a public servant.

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