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Remembering Tom Coburn: The Doctor Who Breathed Life Into Conservatism

tom coburn speaks at the concordia annual summit
Former Senator for the State of Oklahoma Dr. Tom Coburn speaks onstage during in 2018 ( Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)

By Sunday, 29 March 2020 07:34 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Soon after taking office in 1995, freshman Rep. Tom Coburn, R.-Okla., held his first staff meeting.

John Stirrup, the first chief of staff, recalled to Newsmax how the physician and first-time office-holder “made clear to all of us his personal philosophy on how he was going to serve.  He said he was generally going to be a backbencher who you wouldn’t see speaking very often on the House floor.”

A few days later, Stirrup said, “I glanced up at the TV and there was Dr. Coburn speaking on the floor like a well-seasoned member!  I asked the staff who was with him and who wrote his floor speech.  It was shrugs all around.  That was just the beginning….”

It was.  When he died on Saturday following a long bout with cancer, Coburn, 72, was universally regarded by conservative activists as one of their stellar leaders in the ‘90’s and early 21st Century.  A front-and-center fiscal conservative who championed smaller government and a relentless fighter for the right to life and other social issues, the physician-politician seemed to breathe life into modern conservatism with every cause he embraced.

“He was the classic citizen-legislator and the polar opposite of the career politician,” recalled Gary Hoitsma, former press secretary to conservative Sen. Jim Inhofe, R.-Okla.  Noting how Coburn limited his tenure in both the House (1994-2000) and Senate (2004-16), Hoitsma dubbed him “the premier champion of term limits who self-limited his own terms when other term limits advocates wouldn’t think of doing the same.” 

And, yes, he was a friend of Barack Obama.

The two came to the Senate in 2004 and, while disagreeing on virtually every issue, were nevertheless good friends.  Coburn and Obama actually worked together on some projects, such as their joint efforts to strengthen congressional ethics and to streamline the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA).

“I love the man,” Coburn said of Obama in a 2011 interview with Bloomberg News, “I don’t want him to be president [and] I disagree with him on 95 percent of the issues but that doesn’t mean I can’t have a great relationship.  And that’s a model people should follow.” 

Born in Casper, Wyoming, the young Coburn earned a degree in accounting from Oklahoma State University.  He seemed destined for a career in the business his father launched, Coburn Optical Industries. 

But after contracting and eventually conquering malignant melanoma in his early ‘30’s, Coburn chose a different career path.  He graduated with honors from the University of Oklahoma Medical School and launched a family practice in Muskogee, Oklahoma.  He and wife Carole (Miss Oklahoma of 1967) joined the First Baptist Church of Muskogee and Tom became a deacon.

Angry at the growth of government and taxes, Coburn was anxious to carry the conservative banner against eight-term Democratic Rep. Mike Synar in 1994.  But as he wrapped up the Republican nomination, a retired school principal named Virgil Cooper “beat him to the punch” by taking out Synar in the Democratic primary.

In a year of rancorous campaigns nationwide, Coburn and Cooper not only liked one another but were actually both conservatives who agreed on most issues.  Coburn eventually won with 52 per cent of the vote, and became the first Republican to represent Oklahoma’s 2nd District since 1921.

Coburn was a proud supporter of the Contract With America, helped write the landmark welfare reform bill, and a much-praised measure to prevent the spread of AIDS to infants.

The Oklahoman grew increasingly disgusted with his party’s House leadership, believing it was moving away toward the GOP “establishment.” He took part in a 1997 coup attempt against Speaker Gingrich (who resigned the following year) and endorsed insurgent conservative Alan Keyes for president in 2000.

Four years after leaving the House, Coburn roared back to the Senate.  He rolled up 61 percent of the vote over two opponents in the primary and, in November, he defeated Democratic Rep. Brad Carson with 53 to 42 percent.

Much as he did in the House, Sen. Coburn pursued conservative causes with vigor.  These ranged from thwarting two bills honoring environmental icon Rachel Carson on her 100th birthday (Coburn felt she promoted “junk science”) to co-sponsoring a measure to require disclose of all outlets receiving government funds.

“Dr. Coburn — he always preferred “Doctor” to “Senator”— was a man of principle and persistence,” said Ron Pearson, top aide to two conservative U.S. representatives and vice president of the board of directors of the Young America’s Foundation. “But he knew principle was not enough if you didn’t consistently try to put those principles into action and policy,” Pearson said.

“Congress has not been the same since he left,” said John Stirrup, “and the world is a bit emptier without him.”

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

© 2020 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

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Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., died on Saturday following a long bout with cancer. Coburn, 72, was universally regarded by conservative activists as one of their stellar leaders in the ‘90’s and early 21st Century....
coburn, House, Senate, gingrich, conservative
Sunday, 29 March 2020 07:34 AM
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