C. Everett Koop got the surgeon general's job in the Reagan White House largely on the strength of his anti-abortion convictions. But Koop surprised many of his supporters, who ended up denouncing him, by turning out to care more about health than about ideology.
That meant, for instance, that if telling people the details of dangerous sexual practices would help stop the spread of AIDS, Koop would do just that, instead of just screaming "Abstinence" into the wind as thousands of names were added to the list of those dying from this epidemic.
Koop has brought that same no-nonsense approach to a series of five specials for NBC on the state of the nation's health. The first, which focused on child care, was given a Tuesday night send-off by the network. Unfortunately, in Baltimore, that was a Tuesday night when the NBC affiliate, Channel 2 (WMAR), was running an Orioles game.
The second of Koop's specials, this one moving up the age ladder to look at adolescents, was to go last Sunday at 7 o'clock but was bumped by NBC's decision to move the NBA finals into prime time. It will finally make it this Sunday at 7 p.m., the regular slot for these programs.
Koop looks at a variety of teen-agers in Minneapolis, finding that adolescence is a time when the mind can be the most dangerous enemy that the body has. The vigor of emerging adults should translate into good health, but too often the rocky road of these years detours into drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, drinking and driving, depression, even suicide. These are the main health threats to adolescents, and Koop finds ways that they are being fought in Minneapolis.
One program that gets his wholehearted endorsement is in-school health clinics. He shows one at work at a high school. He finds a day-care center that cares for the children of high school students, allowing them to finish their education. He looks at a class designed to go after potential dropouts with lessons about life out there in the real world.
Koop introduces a variety of high school-age kids: a pregnant girl trying to figure out what the rest of her life is going to be like, the daughter of a close-knit, religious, supportive family, the product of an abusive, broken home. He takes you out on the streets to meet some kids who live there and into a clinic that gives them a place to go.
In each of these situations, his pragmatic approach keeps him away from polemics and sermonizing as he looks for useful, workable solutions that will help these kids. He's not afraid of espousing religion as an important part of keeping kids' heads on straight during these difficult years, nor does he back away from a 20-year-old who goes through his neighborhood handing out condoms and AIDS pamphlets.
Koop, a pediatrician by trade, has probably cured enough illness to give his specials an essentially optimistic outlook as he attempts to convey a feeling that we can confront and solve many of these problems.
But he has also probably seen enough disease and death to know that there is no panacea, be it idelogical or medical. So these hours give no definitive answers, just praactical solutions to particular problems, good advice that's also a call to action.
When the time came to re-create on location in Washington the attempted assassination of President Reagan for the HBO film "Without Warning," it so happened that Jim Brady, the press secretary who was severely injured in the shooting and is the focus on the film, was in town for a press conference about the movie.
"It was a little creepy," Beau Bridges, who plays Brady in the film, said at a press conference in Los Angeles, "because I had been to the site of the shooting . . ."
"Of the filming," Brady interrupted with a chuckle.
"The filming. That's right. Jim corrects me whenever I use that word. It was creepy being there, knowing Jim. I didn't like that feeling."
Brady didn't attend the actual filming of that scene. "I told Beau I'd tell him anything he wanted to know about it, but I didn't want to see it again.
"I felt a lot of pain," Brady said of first viewing the film's version of the shooting. "Because I think it took me back to that moment, which I try very much to forget, although I'll probably never be able to."
"Without Warning," which chronicles Brady's comeback from severe brain damage, is on HBO Sunday night at 9 o'clock.
Despite the pain, Brady's wife, Sarah, who has become a gun-control advocate in the shooting's aftermath, said that the family looked forward to seeing the film.
"You can't deny that something has happened. You have to come to grips with it, to terms with it, you have to grieve and then get on with your life," she said.
"I think this will be therapeutic. It will bring tears to our eyes and perhaps to many other people's, too. But we know where we are. We know we've had a happy ending."