Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop testifies in...

Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop testifies in Concord, N.H. Koop, who raised the profile of the surgeon general by riveting America's attention on the then-emerging disease known as AIDS and by railing against smoking, died Feb. 25, 2013 in New Hampshire. He was 96. Credit: AP, 2002

Dr. C. Everett Koop taught Americans many things.

When President Ronald Reagan nominated him as U.S. surgeon general in 1981, liberals were incensed. Koop was known for his socially conservative views -- especially his opposition to abortion. A skeptical Senate held up his confirmation for months. But once in office, he surprised everyone.

His strong campaign against smoking earned him the enmity of tobacco-state conservatives. His frank talk about AIDS -- which in those days was a new and usually fatal disease -- shocked Americans of all kinds. While most politicians tried to avoid even mentioning AIDS, Koop was urging condom use and safer sex. And he refused to use his office as an anti-abortion soapbox. He didn't want his beliefs to interfere with his duties as the nation's top public health officer.

His approach worked. By the time Koop left office in 1989, smoking had dropped from 33 percent of Americans to 26 percent. Most Americans understood how the AIDS virus was transmitted and what precautions to take against it. If the culture wars were raging all around him, they were not raging because Koop fanned the flames.

Koop showed us that character is about more than angry labels, that sound science is the best way to serve humanity, and that ideology is a personal thing. He died Monday at 96, and his old-fashioned common sense, decency and open-mindedness will be missed.

In today's politics, ideology battles science to a stunning degree. Elections turn on notions about rape. Evolution remains a debatable idea in some parts of the country. And abortion has created a seemingly intractable gap in public opinion. The result is anger and deadlock. Koop -- who started as a pioneering pediatric surgeon -- was an evangelical Christian and a man of science. For him, this was a glorious mix, and it happened to make this nation, and maybe the world, a better place.