Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – 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. Weyrich later 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 sat on the American spectrum (where I more or less remain) it was natural to remain an ardent fan of Dr. Tom, an obstetrician and gynecologist from Muskogee in the eastern hills of Oklahoma.
After years in D.C., the worst thing anyone could slap Coburn around for was intervening in a friend’s messy personal situation long ago, something that looked simply like a guy trying to help a friend. Coburn was always, at heart, a citizen on temporary assignment in politics and in D.C.
Chris Casteel of The Oklahoman aptly observed Coburn’s disagreements were 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 was consistent, 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, I credited Coburn for getting upset. Once upon a time, filibusters were one of the few available means to highlight the crushing burdens we are imposing on younger generations.
Coburn was a master of the in-state town halls, advancing sound ideas while pleading for civility and restrained rhetoric. His farm team legacy includes the current Oklahoma Senate President Pro Temp and others in conservative leadership. His friendship with Barack Obama was mutual, and has taken on legendary status – yet it was utterly real.
Pro Temp Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, interned for Coburn during his years in the House, then was regional director in that storied 2004 campaign. Later, he was a field representative. His brother Brian was later Coburn’s chief of staff.
In interview several years ago, Sen. Treat reflected, “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 was Josh Brecheen of Coalgate, a volunteer in the 2004 election who served as a Coburn field rep before winning a seate Senate seat in 2010. He returned to the private sector after two terms in the Legislature.
In an interview years ago, Brecheen marveled 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, 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.”
Best known for his strict scrutiny of government spending, Coburn was a remarkably skilled politician. In that 2004 election to the Senate, he built on relationships with Native American leaders he first crafted during his time in the House. He was a usually quiet ally of the smaller tribal nations, and got a few endorsements from their leaders because he understood the ways in which powerful big tribes had used insider connections (at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and throughout the government) to hurt small tribe aspirations.
Coburn left the nation’s capital after earning a position as a statesman with broad bipartisan support. Six years ago, when I heard of the recurrence of Coburn’s prostate cancer, I prayed that somehow he could keep pounding away for themes that characterized his time in elected office. But his Honesty led him to tell friends in Oklahoma he might step aside.
In the end, he assumed an almost clinical approach, saying he would stay through the end of 2014. That allowed Gov. Mary Fallin to schedule a special election to coincide with the regular election cycle.
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. Coburn’s tribute to Mike – whose time with Weyrich had overlapped my own – seems now like a description of Coburn himself, as one who gave not only money but also the precious gift of time to others.
Coburn’s recipients of time and care included women in eastern Oklahoma who could not afford to pay for medical services. Others offered sympathy, but the no-nonsense doc offered love and dignity – to the disabled, the infirm, the elderly, the unborn and the poor.
Coburn characterized Schwartz as “a voracious reader who never stopped inquiring and studying.” Dr. Tom 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.”
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 a liberal Democrat who, after a brief stint in the Senate, became president: “How better to influence somebody than to love them?”
Regardless of unequal abilities, we are each equal in the eyes of God, and deserve equal justice. The good doctor lived those beliefs, personally and publicly.
Now, I am in a world without Tom Coburn. In terms of what that means for Oklahoma, let me put it this way: Henry Bellmon, Mike Synar, Tom Coburn and I hope James Lankford – a diverse collection of Oklahoma guys who meant what they said, said what they meant and stayed true to their particular north stars. Agree or disagree, admirable.
Preserving Coburn’s legacy requires that others model his leadership style, combining philosophical rigor with tenacity over the roles of government and concentrated power. May we now model all that, with a gentle spirit about the human foibles of both friend and foe. Make it so.
Note: McGuigan’s tribute to Coburn is updated from a 2014 essay for “Watchdog.org” (still available at the “SayAnything” blog, and his 2018 tribute to Mike Schwartz at the CapitolBeatOK website.