The Embattled Career of Dr. Koop
Once a reporter asked Koop how he earned the medals on his uniform: "The top row is for what liberals did to me; the bottom row is for what conservatives did to me," he replied. In the end, the man who, in the face of ceaseless opposition, had overcome enormous media bias and transformed his office into one 0f the most respected posts in government, quietly resigned.
There are many theories on why Koop left office. Some believe he was sabotaged by ardent prolifers in the White House who leaked his letter to the President. Others theorize that proabortionist forces, knowing Koop's true views, froze him out.
There are even more contradictory points of view on Koop's overall performance. The New York Times headline "Surprises Friends and Foes Alike" could sum up his entire term of office.
By far the most disgruntled "surprised friends" are the prolifers. Why would Koop keep quiet about the one issue on which he had previously been so outspoken? As one Christian lobbyist puts it, "If Koop can announce that smoking by pregnant women endangers fetal health, why could he not also say that abortion by pregnant women is fatal to fetal health?" Perhaps the best explanation for his silence is that early on Koop recognized abortion—like gun control—as a politically suicidal issue; if he took a strong vocal stand, no one would listen to anything else he said as surgeon general.
The list of "surprised foes" is much longer, and brings Koop great pleasure. Without exception, every person or group that testified against his nomination has publicly admitted having misjudged him. To many Washington cynics, Koop offered up a refreshing model of integrity from an evangelical Christian—and this in a time when other well-known evangelicals were attracting attention for their lack of integrity. In the words of Time magazine, "The city that worships at the gray altar of ambiguity found there was room for a man of black and white."
Koop insists that his basic views did not change in office, that his strong beliefs provided the foundation for all of his major actions. In his support, he points to a glowing evaluation of his term published in an unlikely place, Mademoiselle magazine. "Identifiable goodness is encountered rarely enough in ordinary life—it's as rare as a gold ostrich egg in politics," the article begins. The article goes on to praise the surgeon general for his example of intellectual, moral, and ethical honesty.
Mademoiselle concludes, "Koop, by exercising an agonized compassion for the poor, the wounded and the disenfranchised, has successfully and spectacularly integrated his religious and professional life: He is Christian, but he is not sectarian." It is easy to see why Koop likes that article so much, for it recognizes his success in achieving the one goal he carved out for himself during his darkest hour eight years before.
Although most people his term in office mainly by the Big Three crises, Koop sees it differently. Wherever he goes, ordinary citizens come up to him with a heartfelt word of thanks. "I'm in a spouse-abuse support group now." "I kept my baby because of you." "My son has AIDS—thanks for all you did." "You gave me the courage to quit smoking." Because of them, Doctor Koop looks back on the last eight years—for all their turbulence—with few regrets and deep satisfaction.
This article originally appeared in the October 20, 1989, issue of Christianity Today. Philip Yancey was then, as now, editor at large for the magazine.