The word “integrity” has two meanings. The first is the quality of having good values and morals. The second is the quality of being whole and uncompromised. My friend Tom Coburn, who died this past weekend, embodied both.
Tom was a good senator and a good congressman — and a good physician and a good husband and friend — because he was a good man. Every facet of his life was defined by his integrity.
In my years in politics, I never met anyone who took his oath of office more seriously than Tom Coburn. To Tom, the oath wasn’t a bunch of ceremonial words you say before you get on with the real work of politics. He understood that obedience to the oath is the real work of politics.
According to the oath, a public official’s first duty is neither to his party nor to his ideology, nor even to his constituents. His oath is to the Constitution itself: its institutions, its rules, its principles.
In Washington, this approach to politics made Tom a curiosity, even a nuisance. It never occurred to the party leaders he so often rankled that the real problem might not be him, but them.
Some of his detractors — pork-barrel politicians and their K Street funders, mostly — nicknamed him “Dr. No.” But they misunderstood. Elected officials who take their oaths of office seriously — left, right, and middle — have to vote no, and often, because the Swamp has so warped federal policy and institutions. During Tom’s tenure in Congress, saying yes to the oath of office meant saying no to Washington.
When Tom first raised red flags about Congress’s addiction to earmarks — special spending provisions inserted into legislation at the explicit direction of individual members — leaders in both parties, to say nothing of the media, laughed at him.
He didn’t mind. Tom Coburn understood that for outsiders, to win the fight, you first had to win the argument.
Year after year, bill after bill, he showed that earmarks were corrupt and corrupting. They warped Congress and empowered insiders and influence-peddlers at the expense of the public. Projects such as the notorious “Bridge to Nowhere” not only wasted a lot of money; they also covered up even more, because once members got their own personal teaspoon of Swamp water into a bill, party leaders became free to pour in gallons more without losing any votes. Every year, he and his staff put out an exhaustive report on dumb, abusive programs — the annual Waste Book.
Soon after Tom won the argument, he won the fight. Congress banned earmarks, in large part because of the grit and intelligence of one man.
And what a man.
For as great as Tom Coburn’s legacy was as a legislator, even that was dwarfed by his legacy as a person. When the Ethics Committee told Congressman and then Senator Coburn that conflict-of-interest rules prevented him from continuing with his obstetrics practice, he started seeing his patients free of charge. During his long career as a physician, Dr. Tom Coburn delivered more than 4,000 babies. He served countless of those and other kids as a regular Sunday-school teacher at his church.
Tom Coburn’s life is a testament to the power of personal integrity, and his integrity was as fixed as the North Star because it was built on his faith in Jesus. Tom was a great example to me as a legislator, but an even better example of how to be a cheerful warrior while sharing the love of Jesus. He changed Washington, and made the world a better place, through the simple but extremely difficult work of being a good man. And I’m quite sure he recently heard the words from his savior, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”