Admiring Oklahoma’s ‘Dr. Tom’ — and honoring his legacy


COBURN’S CHARACTER: Battling prostate cancer for the fourth time, Dr. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma’s junior U.S. Senator, will leave Washington this fall. He leaves behind a strong conservative legacy, including a “farm team” of ardent younger conservatives. photo by Patrick B. McGuigan

By Patrick B. McGuigan | Oklahoma Watchdog

OKLAHOMA CITY – Early in 2003-04 election cycle, “New Right” leader Paul Weyrich called from Washington D.C., to pick my brain on the contest to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Don Nickles.

I told Weyrich, for whom I had worked in Washington during the Carter, Reagan and Bush (the elder) presidencies, that I thought former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, a conservative, would win a tough Republican primary and runoff, and then prevail over U.S. Rep. Brad Carson, an eastern Oklahoma Democrat.

Still, I added this important caveat: “If former Congressman Tom Coburn runs, he’ll get the GOP nomination without a runoff, and win overwhelmingly in November.” Weyrich shared my prophecy with a wide circle of his allies and our mutual friends. Coburn ran, comfortably securing the Republican nod and then thumping Carson in the general election. Carson is now President Obama‘s nominee for under secretary for the U.S. Army. Weyrich said I “called” the election, like Babe Ruth pointing at the center-field fence before slamming a home run.

Actually, I simply paid attention. In watching politicians, bureaucrats and public policy, a journalist or pundit must take care not to “go native” by surrendering the role of watchdog, monitor of the public interest. Still, from where I sit on the American spectrum, it has been hard to avoid becoming and remaining an ardent fan of Dr. Tom, an obstetrician and gynecologist from Muskogee in the eastern hills of Oklahoma.

After 15 years in D.C., the worst thing anyone can slap Coburn around for was intervening in a friend’s messy personal situation years ago, something that looked simply like a guy trying to help a friend. Coburn remains at heart a citizen on temporary assignment.

Chris Casteel of The Oklahoman aptly observes Coburn’s disagreements are never personal. He rarely abandoned his bedside manner, focused on the patient. In the case of his years in Congress, the “patient” was our country and the crushing “illness” of massive debt and profligate public spending. Coburn has been purposeful and honorable as a citizen-legislator.

He rarely took things personally. When he did, as with his fury over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid‘s moves to crush filibusters, you have to credit Coburn for getting upset. Filibusters have been one of the few available means to highlight the crushing burdens we are imposing on younger generations.

Coburn is principled, caring and professional. He is a master of the in-state town halls, advancing sound ideas while pleading for civility and restrained rhetoric. His farm team legacy features two young members of the Oklahoma Legislature.

State Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, interned for Coburn during his years in the House, then was regional director in that 2004 campaign. Later, he was a field representative. His brother Brian is Coburn’s chief of staff. Greg reflects, “I vividly remember Mrs. Carolyn Coburn telling my brother, Jerry Morris, Curt Price and myself that we were crazy for trying to talk ‘my Tommy’ into running for U.S. Senate in their living room in 2003 while he was battling his second bout of cancer.”

He called Coburn “an awesome man of faith and the smartest, most driven individual that I have ever had the pleasure of working for or knowing.”

Another Coburn acolyte is Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate, a volunteer in the 2004 election who served as a Coburn field rep before winning a state Senate seat in 2010.

Brecheen marvels at “just how truly rare and authentic an elected official Tom Coburn is. I sense we all share a common concern that this may be the worst time to be losing Coburn’s straight-shooting approach to governing in D.C. He leaves behind a legacy of mentorship in conservatism for more than just those who worked for him.”

Like the late Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Coburn was sometimes called “Dr. No.” Enemies used that to denigrate him, but here at home, as Brecheen said last month, those “no’s” were “the constant voice of reason in the wilderness for almost 20 years. His legacy is truly a gift to our children and grandchildren – he looked out for them when others wouldn’t.”

Coburn will leave Washington next winter, having assumed a position as a statesman with broad bipartisan support not seen in Oklahoma since David Boren‘s heyday in the Senate.

When word circulated of his new battle with prostate cancer, which has dogged him for years, I prayed that somehow he could keep pounding away for themes that have characterized his time in elected office. Honesty led him to tell friends in Oklahoma he might step aside.

Then, he assumed an almost clinical approach, saying he would stay through the current session. That allowed Gov. Mary Fallin to schedule a special election to coincide with the regular election cycle — including his colleague Jim Inhofe‘s quest for another term.

Now, we ponder a Washington without Tom Coburn. I remember his words about a mutual friend, Mike Schwartz, his long-time aide who died in 2012 of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Coburn observed Mike had a gift, of honoring others. His tribute to Mike seemed to me a description of Coburn himself, one who gives not only money and the precious gift of time to others.

Coburn’s recipients include women who could not afford to pay for medical services. Sure, others offered sympathy. But the no-nonsense doc offered love and dignity to them, and to the disabled, the infirm, the elderly, the unborn and the poor.

Coburn characterized Mike as “a voracious reader who never stopped inquiring and studying.” Interesting, because Dr. Tom is the guy who understood, as he said of Mike: “In a city where people stop learning when they gain power, he has shown that the closer you get to power, the more you need to humble yourself and learn new things.”

So now, he’s headed for the door, albeit in slow motion. When I think of Coburn’s grace, humility, courage and tenacity, I will never forget the explanation he gave to folks back home who could not understand his personal friendship for our president: “How better to influence somebody than to love them?”

Regardless of our unequal abilities, we are all equal in the eyes of God, and deserve equal justice. The good doctor lived those beliefs, personally and publicly.

To preserve the Coburn legacy will require that others model his leadership style, combining philosophical rigor and tenacity over the roles of government and concentrated power with a gentle spirit about the human foibles of both friend and foe.

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