Tom Coburn: A Beacon in Dark Times
Tom Coburn, who passed away last week after a long battle with cancer, hated legacy talk. It wasn’t about him. It was about others. Having spent more than two decades as his communications director, co-author and collaborator, the behind-the-scenes man was better than the stories. His extraordinary life is a beacon in very dark times.
Tom Coburn was the most courageous and freest person I’ve ever known. He overcame fear with faith and life experience. He believed and lived the Scripture that says “Perfect love drives out fear.” In his 20s he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and given a 20% chance of surviving. The experience clarified his priorities. “I just wanted to see my daughters grow up,” he reflected.
He lived every day as if it were his last and ordered his life around his priorities – faith, family, and service to his country. He took grand stands without grandstanding. He was tough, intense and demanding. I knew his rough edges and blind spots and he knew mine. Working for him, and knowing him, was, and is, not merely a source of pride, but indescribable joy.
Coburn’s Final Directive
After Coburn won his final election to the U.S. Senate in 2010, he called his senior staff into his office and gave us an order: “I don’t want to leave here with any political capital.”
It was a striking command because he had hardly been cautious up to that point. Our chief of staff, Mike Schwartz, who himself was a giant of a man, often joked he was the first mate on a pirate ship. (Mike passed away of ALS in 2013. He heroically kept coming to the office long after his body was failing. He modeled the esprit de corps we Coburn alum treasure. We never quit. Ever.)
After abiding by a self-imposed three-term pledge in the House (1994 – 2000), which four years later led to an unexpected and prolific term in the Senate, Coburn’s profile in courage had already been written. The Wall Street Journal had declared him, “Coburn the Barbarian.” George Will had offered the enduring moniker: “Dr. No.” Will wrote, “Coburn is the most dangerous creature that can come to the Senate, someone simply uninterested in being popular.”
By 2010, Coburn knew he had a reputation that he wanted to leverage for the sake of the country. The thought of leaving Washington a beloved, admired, or respected figure caused him visceral discomfort. He would occasionally shudder as if shivering at the thought. Literally shake. He was making a point to us, but the gesture required very little acting on his part. He had zero interest in being understood or affirmed. His mission was to leave no earthly treasure behind and to leverage the visible for invisible.
This wasn’t false piety. Because he was aware of his human frailty and capacity for vanity, he refused to create a self-congratulatory “me wall” in any of his offices. In the late 1990s, a staffer made the grave error of displaying a laudatory press clip celebrating his maverick persona. He barked, “Take that down!”
In 2010, as we prepared his triumphant return to his medical practice in Muskogee, Okla., our mission was to identify intersections of maximum risk to his reputation, maximum obscurity, and maximum benefit to the country. He redoubled his focus on oversight and legislating (i.e. activities that don’t automatically get press attention) and pursued unlikely long-shot compromises on the debt and entitlements (Simpson-Bowles), which inspired our second take-no-prisoners book (“The Debt Bomb,” 2012). He even fought for a compromise on gun-safety legislation with Chuck Schumer (D-NY) after the horrifying tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary.
These efforts caused some head-scratching among supporters who admired his conservative bona fides. To Coburn, these misunderstandings were a sign he was on the right track. Coburn had read all of the Constitution and Federalist Papers and paid special attention to parts most politicians like to ignore: the enumerated powers limiting Congress’ role and passages warning against the lunacy of rejecting principled compromise when the only alternatives were chaos and anarchy. To Coburn, compromise wasn’t selling out. It was the job description. He was happy to look bad if the country flourished.
Yet, try as we did to help him fulfill his wish of leaving reviled, despised and forgotten, we failed. The faster we tried to spend down his capital the more he amassed. In 2013, Time named him one the most 100 influential people in the world, with an essay penned by the president of the United States and his friend, Barack Obama. Not surprisingly, Coburn skipped the Time banquet honoring the influential.
Coburn garnered favorable coverage from “60 Minutes” and even the New York Times. Mark Leibovich, who had written a wonderful profile of Coburn in 2009, treated Coburn as almost a protagonist in his insightful 2013 takedown of modern Washington, “This Town.”
By all accounts, “Operation Forget About Me” failed catastrophically.
Coburn left the Senate in 2015 before his term was over, in part due to his recurrence of cancer. The Wall Street Journal’s Kim Strassel wrote, “Mr. Coburn didn’t really ‘do’ legacy. Which is why this rather humble Oklahoman will have one. The real key to Mr. Coburn’s success was a skill too little valued in Washington today: hard work.”
Coburn’s Enduring Lessons
In the days since his passing, many pieces have been published that tell important parts of the story. He was a man of integrity who put his faith and family first. He was the conscience of the Senate. He was the last honest man in Washington. He was the oversight senator and the leader of the transparency revolution. He was a policy pioneer and problem-solver, especially on health care and budget policy. He also saved lives by writing the first “Baby AIDS” law that helped prevent the transmission of HIV from mothers to babies and through his defense of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). He was a fanatic in the best sense of the word. He was not just Dr. No but also Dr. Know. He was a fantastic and exacting boss who demanded trenchant arguments and footnotes. All of these pieces and elements are true in their own right, but four key themes deserve to be amplified.
Tom Coburn ran toward issues most politicians run from. In “Breach of Trust” (2003), we wrote that the perfect political moment for change is a mirage that is always just beyond the horizon of the next election. To Tom Coburn, the perfect moment was always now, not tomorrow. The notion that legislators are elected to not legislate and instead strengthen their position, so they do good at some later, safer and more convenient time was the breach of trust.
Coburn’s courage was contagious. We need it now more than ever.
He was happy to be known as “Dr. No,” but he was as interested in proposition as opposition. To borrow from Yuval Levin, he was a builder. He was an American Revolutionary, not a French Revolutionary. He was an institutionalist focused on renovation rather than demolition. He was the opposite of a modern RINO (Rebel in Name Only) who uses Congress as a stage for self-promotional political theater.
Coburn did his homework and learned to use the rules to maximum effect. From 2005-2014, Coburn sponsored 1,054 amendments. In 2019, the entire Senate only voted on 26 amendments. Some of Coburn’s greatest spending cuts will never be discussed because they were done privately. He would identify waste and allow his colleagues to withdraw requests before targeting them through his mastery of procedure. In some cases, the mere threat of a Coburn amendment was enough to save millions. He was the transparency senator, but he always sought ways to give his colleagues a chance to save face, and he created opportunities for members on all sides to have difficult and honest conversations in private.
He despised waste, which he described as “the misallocation of scarce resources,” but he was for liberty more than he was against spending. He wasn’t a mere scold, tightwad or numbers person. He was concerned about people. Spending was Leviathan’s shadow. And Leviathan unconstrained was a threat to the well-being of the powerless. He believed, as did Thomas Jefferson, that as government grows, liberty diminishes.
He was a rebel and a fighter but was not interested in martyrdom or Pickett’s Charges. Courage wasn’t synonymous with self-immolation or committing ritual suicide on the altar of ideological purity. His goal of putting our country on a sustainable fiscal course is unfulfilled – to say the least – but he initiated a smart, incremental strategy. Rather than attacking spending all at once or offering unattainable across-the-board cuts, he had the temerity to challenge individual projects like the “Bridge to Nowhere” and ask where they fit in the nation’s priorities.
The WSJ editorial board nailed it: his aim was to advance principles, not look principled.
In this perilous moment, Coburn would be preoccupied with creating a culture of preparedness. He sounded the alarm about misplaced priorities at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) back in 2007. Yet, rather than complaining or pointing fingers, he would be working. He saw no value in pointing out fault without taking action to correct it, and he found no joy in division, no matter how contentious the debate.
He would see the private sector and private individuals as the key to defeating COVID-19. He would not reflexively oppose a government response (he voted for TARP but against the Obama stimulus), but he would see this as a Dunkirk moment. He knew a lot of private people with big boats and he’d be getting them in the water as quickly as possible.
He’d be focused on the task at hand but would be challenging his colleagues to learn from this experience. Coburn saw a lack of preparedness throughout government that was thoroughly bipartisan. He’d cajole his colleagues to put all of their long-term priorities on the table and have the guts to compromise and make hard choices. As Coburn memorably said in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008/2009, “Send me some senators who have some gonads.”
To help our economy recover, he’d want to flatten the debt curve and reduce the drag effect of our growing deficits. During the Simpson-Bowles deliberations he identified $9 trillion in savings over 10 years. His 621-page “Back in Black” report, which included 3,056 footnotes, was an oversight and offset tour de force. Congress and OMB should build on his efforts. (And thank you, former Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, for the AC/DC t-shirt honoring that project.)
Most of all, at a time when the country needs leaders to be at their best, he would be unapologetically kind and courteous to the other side. When Barack Obama finished his first State of the Union in 2009, he walked down the row shaking hands of members of Congress. When he stopped at Coburn he gave him a hug. It’s easy to think this era of comity and normality is behind us. But this wasn’t ancient history. It was 11 years ago.
Coburn took a lot of heat for his warm friendship with Obama, and Obama took his share of criticism as well. But it was good for the country. In his “60 Minutes” exit interview, Coburn said of Obama, “I just love him as a man. I think he’s a neat man. You don’t have to be the same to be friends. Matter of fact, the interesting friendships are the ones that are divergent.”
Behind the scenes, their friendship was inspiring and sometimes hilarious. Sadly, photographers never captured one moment when Obama ran his fingers very slowly through Tom Coburn’s mane, palm on scalp, to compliment him on his uniquely Oklahoman, middle-parted, swept back hair. “Nice hair,” Obama deadpanned.
Coburn’s belief in offering kindness toward “the other” wasn’t banal sentimentality but the foundation of our republic. As George Washington said in his farewell address in 1796, “You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings [of party strife] ... they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”
Washington – and Coburn – believed “fraternal affection” would be the natural byproduct of a people who shared a conviction that we all have dignity and innate, invaluable worth because our rights don’t emanate from the state, party, king or tribe but from nature or nature’s God.
Coburn understood that maintaining “fraternal affection” in the face of inevitable discord and dissent is a not merely an aspect of the revolution. It is the revolution. Our ability to resolve our differences peacefully requires this foundation.
Coburn’s belief that people matter and are worthy of dignity and respect by virtue of being human, makes him a constitutional conservative even more than his deep conviction in limited government. In fact, his belief in the unlimited value of people is the reason he thought government should be limited.
But Coburn’s light shone brightest in our mundane day-to-day work.
Many meetings with Coburn consisted of him briskly walking by your desk saying, “Walk with me,” without breaking stride. He didn’t wait or ask if you were busy doing something he had told you to do. It was time to get up. Now. If you were on the phone you’d say, “Igottagobye” while grabbing a pen and paper before chasing him down the hall. His brusque manner was endearing and helped create our esprit de corps. His unique style was great fodder for inside office jokes. Ready for lunch or coffee with a colleague? Stand behind them and command: Walk with me.
For Coburn, “Walk with me” was a metaphor for his life. He was on mission and you better keep up. But the invitation didn’t end when he hit the Senate floor or his next meeting. It was permanent and ongoing. Many of us talked with him regularly about our families, lives, struggles and dreams. We could always count on him to offer honest opinions and hard advice. His mentoring lasted a lifetime. He challenged us to do the same with people in our lives.
So, thanks Boss, for walking with me. As a prophet on your side of eternity said:
We will walk and not grow faint. We will run and not grow weary. The Lord will renew our strength and we will soar on wings like eagles.
Coburn didn’t do legacy. But we will.
In our shining city on a hill, windswept and now locked down, he lit a signal fire that will burn through the ages.
Godspeed, Dr. Thomas Allen Coburn.