IT'S easy to forget, now, how controversial his nomination was. But when C. Everett Koop was tapped by President Reagan in 1981 to be Surgeon General, the choice provoked a firestorm. Some liberals termed the evangelical Christian - best known for his crusade against abortion - ``Dr. Kook,'' and a major newspaper, noting the pediatric surgeon's small experience in public health, called him ``Dr. Unqualified.'' His confirmation by the Senate took nine months. But Dr. Koop pledged that he wouldn't use the office as a ``pulpit for ideology,'' and he's been good by his word. Instead, he turned the ordinarily low-profile job (he has a staff of five and a half-million-dollar budget) into a bully pulpit for attacking some of the foremost public-health problems in America today.
Koop, who will step down July 13, is a peerless example that one, seemingly powerless person can, with vision, courage, and tireless energy, make a difference. Given Koop's Old Testament beard, baritone voice, and thunderous pronouncements on health risks, the eventual movie should be called, ``Jeremiah Goes to Washington.''
He hasn't necessarily been right on every issue. We still question his stance in the Baby Jane Doe case, when he mandated extraordinary medical intervention for a dying infant over the protests of the child's parents; this was taking state encroachment too far.
But on such major health issues as smoking, alcohol abuse, AIDS, and the effect of abortion on women, Koop has been right - and brave. In his campaigns against smoking, tobacco exports, and drunk driving, the Surgeon General has taken on powerful lobbies. In his decision to treat AIDS prevention as primarily a health issue and only secondarily a moral issue, and in his acknowledgment of data disputing assumptions that abortion produces trauma in women, Koop offended many Moral Majority conservatives who championed his nomination.
Koop once said he hoped he would be remembered as a public servant who ``handled the job with integrity and didn't bow to pressures.'' He's getting his wish.