Quickly, now - name the surgeon general of the United States.

That you probably can't is not an indictment of the performance of Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin. It is, rather, a nod to the degree to which C. Everett Koop used the bully pulpit, when he was surgeon general, to elevate awareness of crucial public health issues.

Dr. Koop, who had been the pioneering chief of surgery at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia before becoming surgeon general in 1981, became the face and national face of public health issues during his eight-year tenure. He died Monday at 96.

As the long-running debate over the federal health care law demonstrates, health care policy is just as susceptible to politics as any other area of public policy. Dr. Koop, however, managed to transcend politics. For example, he ignored the Reagan administration's position relative to the AIDS crisis and aggressively advocated condom use, in addition to abstinence or monogamy, as a means to fight the epidemic.

He was most effective in raising awareness of health risks associated with smoking. His aggressive anti-tobacco advocacy contributed to a major decline in smoking over his eight years in office, from 33 percent of Americans to 26 percent. That momentum continued even after his tenure; fewer than 20 percent of Americans now smoke.

Dr. Koop was as effective as an advocate as he was as a physician. He was, to paraphrase Gilbert & Sullivan, the very model of a modern surgeon general.