Ghosts of the 1980s

C. Everett Koop and Robert Bork were two prominent conservatives in the 1980s. And both had interesting beards.

That’s about all they had in common.

Robert Bork was a lawless lawyer with zero integrity:

Robert Bork says President Richard Nixon promised him the next Supreme Court vacancy after Bork complied with Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973.

Bork’s recollection of his role in the Saturday Night Massacre that culminated in Cox’s firing is at the center of his slim memoir, Saving Justice, that is being published posthumously by Encounter Books. Bork died in December at age 85.

Bork writes that he didn’t know if Nixon actually, though mistakenly, believed he still had the political clout to get someone confirmed to the Supreme Court or was just trying to secure Bork’s continued loyalty as his administration crumbled in the Watergate scandal.

… Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox over the prosecutor’s subpoena of White House tapes. Richardson resigned rather than carry out the order. The next in line, William Ruckelshaus, refused to fire Cox and was himself fired.

At TPM, a former student recounts Archibald Cox’s recollection of the Saturday Night Massacre:

I got a call from Attorney General Richardson saying, “Professor, the president wants me to fire you.” So I said, “Well, Elliott, you do what you think is right.” And so Richardson resigned rather than fire me. Then I got a call from Deputy Attorney General Ruckelshaus, who became attorney general when Richardson resigned. And he said, “Professor, the president wants me to fire you.” So I said, “Well, Bill, you do what you think is right” — and he resigned, too. Then I got a call from the next man in line at the Justice Department, Solicitor General Bork. He hadn’t been my student. …

C. Everett Koop, on the other hand, who died last week at the age of 96, is well-remembered even by those with whom he most disagreed because he was more interested in doing his job and serving the public than in political power games.

Martha Kempner has a nice remembrance of Koop at RH Reality Check, “C. Everett Koop: The Surgeon General Who Put Science Before Personal Ideology.”

Reagan, however, drafted Dr. Koop into the abortion debate toward the end of his second term when he asked the Surgeon General to write a report about the psychological effects of abortion on women.

… [Koop] interviewed experts and activists on both sides and found that even more so than in the debate over AIDS, anti-choicers skewed science to fit their point of view. After doing the research, he concluded that there: “was no unbiased, rigorous scientific research on the effects of abortion on women’s health that could serve as the basis for a Surgeon General’s report on the issue.”

Koop had integrity. Bork did not.

And Koop’s beard was way cooler, too.

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  • AnonaMiss

    Fred! I’m ashamed of you! No side-by-side beard comparison picture?!

  • These are really great anecdotes, thanks.

  • Elz
  • “For all the latest medical poop, call Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. Poo-poo-pa-doop.”

    (From the “Be Sharps” episode of The Simpsons – I can’t hear/see a reference to Koop without hearing that in my head.)

    I hadn’t realized that he’d passed away so recently.  I guess I assumed that he had died years ago.

    I also hadn’t remembered that Bork had an interesting beard, or any beard at all.  I think I’m mixing him up with someone else, though I can’t quite put my finger on who it is.  

    I want to say…Tower?

    (Does quick Googling.)  Yep, John Tower is who I was picturing.

  • christopher_y

    One of them saw his name enter the language as a near synonym of “fubar”; the other is remembered as a fine public servant.
    I love that you had to go to Breitbart for a picture of the SoB.

  • Possible urban-legendy newspaper headline:


  • Magic_Cracker

    I have nothing of substance to add, but I think “BORK!” sounds/reads like an onomatopoeic sound effect for a comic featuring reactionary vigilante crime-frighters.

  • Carstonio

    With this thread title, I was expecting jokes about Duran Duran and Flock of Seagulls haircuts…

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who hears Koop and remembers that Simpsons episode.

    As much as I respected Koop’s principles, I never understood why he regarded homosexuality and non-marital sex to be immoral. If neither of these are public health concerns, then that would seem to undercut any argument for their immorality. Any reasoning he may have used to decide these were immoral is not obvious to me.

  • See, to me “BORK!” reminds me of one of my greatest heroes – an honorable man who served his country well and is sadly all too often forgotten.

    By that of course I mean the Swedish Chef.


  • Alethea

    I remember watching a sex ed video back in the 1990s in high school that featured Koop. I can still hear his dead-serious voice saying, “Whether it is penis-to-vagina, penis-to-anus, or mouth-to-penis, there should always be a condom on the penis.” I can also still hear the unrestrained hysterical laughter of a very bawdy friend of mine, who nearly fell out of her chair laughing. She was the only one in the room who wasn’t dying of embarrassment during the video.

  • histrogeek

    Koop was  an amazing public servant. I doubt that today a surgeon general would be willing to put it out something as frank and direct. And then send it to every household in the country.
    See it here Then think of all the HIV/AIDS public health campaigns since.

    I think his forthrightness was why the right wing decided to go after Elders so bad. They didn’t want someone else with Koop’s integrity pissing on their myths.

  • histrogeek

     Koop was very much a conservative evangelical, that was why Reagan appointed him in the first place, and why many liberals were suspicious of him at first. The important thing for Koop was that there was a difference, a big difference, between what he believed as religious person and his role as the chief public health officer. As surgeon general, he wasn’t going to let some twisted notion of a divine judgement get in the science or public health.
    Abortion didn’t cause psychological damage. AIDS was a communicable disease with predictable transmission vectors. Anything else had no place in the Surgeon General’s office (once the science was clear that is).

  • Lori


    One of them saw his name enter the language as a near synonym of “fubar”  

    “Borked” should be a synonym for FUBAR. Instead it’s total wing nut BS. Bork was not Borked. He was not denied a seat on SCOTUS due to obstruction, let alone systematic defamation or vilification. He was not confirmed to SCOTUS because people looked at his rulings, read his opinions & articles and paid attention to his answers during his confirmation hearing and rightly concluded that he had no business on the highest court in the land.

  • histrogeek

     I remember him saying things like that; it was probably the same video. It was awesome to see some grandpa in a uniform with an Amish-like beard being completely deadpan and more explicit than my teen peers would dream of being.
    I also remember him answering a question about divine judgement on gays, and effectively saying, “That’s really stupid. AIDS affects all kinds of people. Get a grip.” Of course he had much more class, but his meaning couldn’t have been clearer.

  • Carstonio

    That explanation not only helps, it also suggests that Koop didn’t really believe that abortion and pre-marital sex were universally immoral. “I believe X  is immoral”  = “I believe no one should do X.” It sounds more like Koop believed that he and others in his religion were forbidden those things, but held no opinion about whether others should pursue them. Kind of like the Amish regarding phone and electric service.

  • histrogeek

     That could be. Or he could be like Roger Williams and just have a really clear sense about what is an appropriate role for government. Either way, it’s something you just don’t see that often from Koop’s tribe these days.

  • Parehlion

    Ah, Koop.  He was one of the very, very few evangelicals in public life about whom I have ever, even for a second, been willing to entertain the notion that he might hate what he saw as my sin while still loving (at least in a humanitarian kind of way) me.

  • Lori

    I don’t think Koops’ statements necessarily meant that he didn’t think pre-martial sex was universally wrong. I think he simply believed (quite correctly) that moral judgements, however universal one believed them to be, had no place in public health policy. He was Surgeon General not The Nation’s Moral Scold, and he took his job seriously. And good for him, both for doing the right thing and for annoying Reagan and the other asshats who thought Koop would back their narrow-minded bigotry.

    For people too young to remember it firsthand it’s hard to explain the early years of the AIDS epidemic. The president first ignored it and then said incredibly stupid, enraging things about it*. People were freaked out and there initially wasn’t a lot of solid information about the disease, and we all know how that goes. Rumors about how it was spread were everywhere. There was serious talk about forced quarantine for the HIV+. Very Serious People honest to FSM discussed whether it was ethical for people to engage in vigilante action to run the HIV+ out of town on a rail in “self-defense”. Sick people lost their homes and their jobs and were prevented from going to school. They often couldn’t get proper medical care or even simply comfort because people were afraid to touch them or anything they had touched. In the midst of that very dark time Koop was a candle and for that he deserves to be remembered with honor and appreciation.

    *Even if he had otherwise been a good president (which he was not) and things had been great in the US under his leadership (which they were not), Reagan’s total failure to lead in the time before the AIDS epidemic got totally out of control would disqualify him from the kind of worshipful glow that Conservatives want to wrap his memory in. Saint Ronnie my ass.

  • P J Evans

    Koop has a nice face.
    Bork looks like he eats lemons.

  • Lliira

    People in your high school paid attention to videos? We just used them as a good time to pass notes. Except that one awesome PBS sex video.

    My high school had pretty good sex ed, that I have learned since was comparatively spectacular sex ed, so “put the condom on the penis”, meh. Heard it dozens of times. Thought we knew how to do it. (Bananas aren’t really much like penises — hopefully kids today have realistic silicone models. I know, pipe dream.) Didn’t need to be told again, and the jokes we could make were a lot funnier than yet another old dude lecturing us about it. Yawn.

  •  How does that follow? He could just as easily have beleived that abortion and premarital sex were universally immoral. Why do you conclude that he didn’t from the fact that he didn’t think that his moral views trumped his responsibilities as a medical professional?

  • Carstonio

    Maybe I don’t understand what Koop meant by immoral. I read that word and I assume he’s equating abortion and non-marital sex with wrongs such as theft or battery or abuse. The idea that his medical responsibilities trump his moral views on the former issues sounds, to me, like he would do nothing if he saw someone break into a car or assault someone else. I doubt that he would refuse to act, so it seems likely that I’m missing something.

  • Lori

    The thing you’re failing to take into consideration is that premarital
    sex is “victimless” (assuming that it’s consensual), while theft and
    assault are, by definition, crimes with victims.

  • arcseconds

    His job wasn’t to stop pre-marital sex or to morally educate people.   He might have been able to argue that stopping abortion was part of his job (abortion isn’t healthy for the foetus!), but it seems that he saw abortion as an issue for moral education, not a medical issue.

    He also would not misrepresent the facts to advance these views.  

    It’s good for people to remember these principles.   There are plenty of examples of people doing exactly the reverse recently.   It’s not, for example, your employer’s job to morally educate you, so they shouldn’t be trying to control what your health insurance provides you with.     There are also plenty of examples of people blatantly lying to advance political causes, one recent example apparently wasn’t intended to be a factual statement (*cough, splutter*).

    (I would certainly not approve of someone I agreed with politically doing these things, either. )

  • Koop was probably the most widely trusted man in America for a time. He earned it.

  •  I… Can’t even make sense of that thing you said.

    Do you think that if a person believes that something is immoral for everyone, that means he must be willing to lie to trick people out of doing it? Because that is what Koop would have had to do here, to lie about the psychological effects of abortion and to lie about the nature of HIV.

    And as it turns out, lying is also one of those things evangelicals are at least in principle not supposed to do

  • Carstonio

    The thing you’re failing to take into consideration is that premarital sex is “victimless” (assuming that it’s consensual), while theft and
    assault are, by definition, crimes with victims.

    That’s the basis of my confusion, because it’s not obvious to me how a victimless act could be immoral.

  • And this is the fellow *i* think of when I hear “Bork”.

  • Carstonio

    I wasn’t questioning why Koop choose to tell the truth regarding the lack of harm for women from abortion, instead of placating folks like Phyllis Schlafly. That’s not what I meant by putting his moral beliefs above his medical responsibility. I meant instead that I would have assumed that a surgeon general morally opposed to abortion would have used the office to publicly denounce the practice.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Why would that make it immoral, as opposed to being forbidden to followers of that deity?

  • Lori

    The belief that something is immoral because a deity forbids it, as opposed to because it hurts someone/thing, is hardly rare.

  • Why? He’s not the Minister General or the Moral Authority General. How he feels about the morality of abortion doesn’t enter into it.

  • Carstonio

    He’s not the Minister General or the Moral Authority General.

    Of course he isn’t. But not every candidate for the post would understand that. The social conservatives of the era used his stance on abortion as a qualification, and I can easily imagine one of their preferred candidates seeing hirself as having a moral obligation to speak out.

  • Irrelevant aside: I actually thought for a second you said he wasn’t the Warmaster.

  • Carstonio

    The belief that something is immoral because a deity forbids it, as opposed to because it hurts someone/thing, is hardly rare.

    Very true, and the rationale behind such beliefs is meaningless outside of the context of the believer’s religion. Fred argued in his King and Huck entry that arguments for laws should be made in secular terms, and perhaps the same principle should be applied to any stance that a given moral stance should be universal. That may be one reason among many that Koop wasn’t William Bennett with a stethoscope despite the pressure from the religious right – he probably knew that his stances on abortion and non-marital sex couldn’t be translated into secular terms.

  • The feelings of the BLGT community at the time are rather aptly summed up here, from The Living End:

  • arcseconds

    Lots of people think (some) acts without a victim in the classic sense of a second party who is harmed by the crime are morally wrong.

    For example, many, if not most, people think that people wasting their lives by spending their existence drunk, high, or slouching in front of the TV without a very good excuse is morally wrong, or something along those lines (people who think more in terms of virtu may think of it more as being degenerate).    This is the basis on which many base their objections to welfare, because they believe that this is the result.

    In utilitarian terms people who do this are not getting the best for themselves, so that’s bad, and they’re also denying others the benefit of the work they could otherwise be doing.  So there are victims in a sense, and we could make some kind of comparison here with environmentalism.   You chopping down a single tree in a forest once is neither here nor there: the problem comes when everyone does it. 

    Chances are good that Koop is thinking partially along these lines: no pre-marital sex and the secondary effects of enforcing such a norm will make life better for the individuals involved, and better for the wider society (stable families and so forth).

    However, most people aren’t thoroughgoing utilitarians (most people have utilitarian, deontological, and even virtue ethical intuitions — ‘d: all of the above’).  If you don’t share the intuition that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, regardless of who’s happy, then you may not understand the intuitive basis for non-utilitarian approaches.  Note that you may have the intuition but seek to justify it in utilitarian terms — that may be enough to get some insight as to why others may prefer a structure which justifies the intuition more directly.

    Anyway, it’s also a pretty common attitude towards these matters of personal virtue that while we might agree that they’re extrinsically or even intrinsically bad, we don’t think it’s OK to interfere directly with individual decision making.  

    For example, it’s pretty clear that physical fitness has massive benefits for the individual and society.  But hardly anyone thinks it’s OK to boot down people’s doors at 6am for the morning’s forced jog.

  • Lori

    Objectively immoral or immoral in the opinion of the believer?

    I’m finding this conversation really confusing. The fact that there are people in this world who believe in a deity and also believe that the dictates of that deity are by definition morality and therefore universally applicable is not exactly a secret. Clearly I don’t agree with them, but the existence of this idea is neither new nor mysterious. The ability of some believers to believe and nevertheless keep their beliefs separate enough from their jobs that they don’t attempt to use those jobs to enforce their morality on others is also neither new nor particularly mysterious. Not nearly as common as it should be, but that’s another issue.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I wasn’t even talking about that. I was talking about, if Athena forbids something, why should anyone who worships Amaterasu care?

  • EllieMurasaki

    To expand upon that, if Athena forbids something because it’s immoral, of course Amaterasu’s devotees should care–the thing is immoral and should not be done. If Athena forbids something because she’s Athena, Amaterasu’s devotees can and should carry on as usual, unless Amaterasu forbids the same thing Athena did.

    Who defines ‘immoral’? Fuck if I know.

  • Lori

    They shouldn’t. That doesn’t mean that someone who worships Athena might not decide to use their job to enforce their perception of Athenian morality and therefore make it everyone’s problem.

  • Lori

    Who defines ‘immoral’?   

    For purposes of this discussion each person does, according to the rules and standards that he or she has decided to adopt.

    AFAICT that’s not really the confusion though. The confusion seems to be that Carstonio can’t really imagine someone who believes or behaves differently than he does and is therefore projection his reasoning onto Koop, with insufficient evidence to back it up.

  • My father was one of “Koop’s troops,” an officer of the Public Health Service (he ran the Endocrine Division at the National Institute on Aging) during Koop’s tenure as Surgeon General.  In addition to his unshakable integrity as a public servant, he was also an excellent administrator and an inspiration to the men and women who served under him, and his high public profile enhanced the service’s prestige as a career choice for new-minted doctors coming out of medical school and Ph.D. programs.

    For those unfamiliar with it, the PHS is a uniformed service, with ranks and uniforms very similar to those of the navy, but it has no enlisted corps, only officers; the rank of Surgeon-General is the equivalent to a Rear Admiral in the navy.  Most PHS officers are integrated into civilian institutions such as the NIH and CDC; they also staff the in-house clinics at major federal office buildings and federal prisons, and screen members of the armed services returning from overseas for potentially contagious diseases.  The original reason for making their uniforms resemble those of naval officers was so that the sailors they examined would treat them with reflexive respect and follow their instructions, as they might have been less inclined to do with civilian doctors.

  • Turcano

    I don’t know.  I don’t really think that the opposition to Bork’s nomination would have been as strong if Ted Kennedy and other Senate Democrats hadn’t waged such a public and vitriolic campaign against him.  Which is why I say that Ted Kennedy never did his country a greater service than when he sabotaged Bork’s confirmation.

  • “Vitriolic” is not the same as “defamatory”. In the case of someone as ill-suited to the job as Bork, making sure everyone knew of those flaws is public service, not a vendetta.

  • Carstonio

    That helps. I think of virtue as how one treats one’s self and morality as how one treats other people, and obviously some behaviors fall into both categories. I do in fact share the intuition that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, even while recognizing that what constitutes waste in that context is subjective. I might label the life wastage you describe as immoral if the person had a rare or valuable skill for alleviating the suffering of others and wasn’t using that skill.

  • Carstonio

     See my answer to Arcseconds. I’ve been framing only interpersonal behavior in terms of morality or immorality. This doesn’t mean that behavior that affects only or primarily one’s self is free from any value system, but just that the value concepts involved would be different from right and wrong.

    If someone believes that zie personally shouldn’t have non-marital sex, it’s not my place to contest that. But if someone claims that everyone should refrain from that sex, it’s reasonable to expect the person to make an argument for why this should be the societal standard.

  • Lori

    If someone believes that zie personally shouldn’t have non-marital sex,
    it’s not my place to contest that. But if someone claims that everyone
    should refrain from that sex, it’s reasonable to expect the person to
    make an argument for why this should be the societal standard.

    I have no idea what this has to do with the fact that Koop did not claim that everyone should refrain from non-marital sex, or how one gets from this to an assumption that Koop must not have believed that non-marital sex was universally wrong.

    I’m not objecting to your reasoning about your own standards. The thing that’s confusing me is your projection of those standards onto Koop, when we have no evidence to back that up.

  • Carstonio

    Would you explain how I’m projecting my own standards onto Koop? I’m trying to understand the moral reasoning of a public official who I hold in great respect.

     You’re right that Koop did not claim that everyone should refrain from non-marital sex. If he said that he believed it to be immoral, then it seems reasonable for me to infer that he believed everyone had a responsibility or obligation to refrain from it. My inference may obviously be wrong, I just don’t understand how. I was allowing for the possibility that Koop may have believed that he himself must avoid non-marital sex while holding no opinion about it for others.

  • Turcano

     Hence my second sentence.  However, doing this can be very risky.  Absent other factors, serving on the Supreme Court tends to have a moderating effect on its members.  The big exception seems to be when the Senate tries this on a nominee and fails, which radicalizes the justice in question.  Clarence Thomas is arguably the best example of this.