Tom Coburn: farewell to a rabble-rousing statesman

Tom Coburn, who delivered babies before running for Congress, relished taking on sacred cows and special interests. But he also understood that both sides had to give a little.

This frame grab from video, provided by C-SPAN2 shows Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma giving his farewell address on the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 11, 2014.

Republican Tom Coburn has had better luck with "60 Minutes" than most politicians, with the possible exception of President Obama. The CBS show did a nice profile on him on Dec. 21, and a year ago, he scored some success with a segment on his Waste Book’s examination of disability fraud.

It’s probably a coincidence that the retiring Oklahoma senator told Leslie Stahl that he loves Obama and that he is proud that America elected him.

As Stahl pointed out, Coburn is also one of the president’s fiercest critics. 

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald could have been talking about Tom Coburn when he made that statement.

He was a rabble-rouser when he was first elected to the House in the 1994, and he was a rabble-rouser when he leaves the Senate at the end of the year.

Tom Coburn has never been dull.

A avowedly pro-life obstetrician, Coburn made news when he demanded that the Ethics Committee allow him to continue to practice medicine as a member of the House (for some stupid reason, the Committee wanted him to stop delivering babies).

He made more news when he gave lectures to congressional staff about the danger of sexually transmitted diseases.

He was a term-limits guy during that first revolutionary class, so he left the House after three terms. Unlike some of his colleagues, he kept his word.

It is far better to make promises that you know you will keep, and Coburn knew that he didn’t want to spend more than six years in the House.

He didn’t make any bold term limits promises when he ran for the Senate to replace former GOP Whip Don Nickles. He had learned by then that Washington changes slow.

Coburn grew into statesman. He didn’t mind taking on sacred cows and special interests that paraded as ideological purists. He understood that in order to move the ball forward on issues like the debt, that both sides had to give a little.

He also chafed at members who turned over their voting cards to outside activist groups. Elected representatives are supposed to do the job of voting themselves, not outsourcing it to shadowy groups who are chiefly funded by the rich and powerful.

Coburn was always courageous, always cantankerous, and always willing to call it like he saw it.

It was important that he said the thing he said about President Obama.

I don’t agree with the president on many things (his love of the White Sox is one of those things where we agree). But he is the president, duly elected twice by the American people, and I respect him and the job he holds.

That he and Tom Coburn are friends and have remained friends is an important narrative about how our democracy works.

We can disagree on philosophy, on issues, on the weather, on tax policy, even on the efficacy of our drug laws or Obamacare. But for this democracy to work, we have to find the common humanity that links us as Americans and find a way to find common ground.

I don’t always agree with Tom Coburn and, at times, he can actually be pretty annoying. His refusal to allow the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) to pass is a case in point.

But I always respected him and valued his contributions to our country.

It’s too bad he is leaving Congress. He will be missed.

John Feehery publishes his Feehery Theory blog at

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