Tom Coburn, the 72-year-old physician and former Oklahoma senator who passed away Saturday, battled the prostate cancer that felled him the same way he battled big spenders and spineless politicians in Washington: with cheerful, unrelenting persistence.
If you’re ever seriously ill, Coburn’s life is itself an inspiration. He contracted melanoma when he was 28 and working as manager of his family’s optical-lens factory. He was given only a 20 percent chance of living. He beat the melanoma, and his struggle convinced him to enter medical school and become a doctor. Years later, he contracted colon cancer and conquered that, too. In 2008, he had brain surgery to remove a benign brain tumor.
Then in 2013, he was told he had a rare form of prostate cancer, one that only 1 in 100,000 prostate-cancer patients suffer from. While the disease convinced him to retire from the Senate in early 2015, he remained optimistic. He fought the disease the way a general plans a battle and told The Oklahoman that if his treatment was effective he would live for another “five or 10 years.” He ended up lasting almost seven.
In between his illnesses, Tom Coburn built a successful medical practice that made him the largest employer in his hometown of Muskogee, Okla. He delivered more than 4,000 babies during his career. And at age 46, he ran for Congress in a solidly Democratic district that hadn’t elected a Republican in 73 years. He continued to deliver babies while in the House, giving up only after the Senate Ethics Committee ruled that such outside work was banned.
After six years in the House, Coburn retired. He was fulfilling a campaign promise to serve no more than three terms, arguing that “our founders saw public service and politics as a calling rather than a career.” When he returned to Washington as a senator in 2004, he quickly became notorious for calling out senators for their secrecy, in part by publishing such lists as “the 10 things Congress doesn’t want you to know about how it does business.”
It’s said that senators are either “workhorses” or “show horses.” Coburn was clearly the former. Despite his unyielding conservatism, he co-sponsored legislation with countless Democratic colleagues in the areas of transparency, corporate tax avoidance, and fraud. The only major bill that a freshman senator named Barack Obama saw signed into law was one he co-sponsored with Coburn that created a government website (USAspending.gov) designed to show how federal dollars are spent. “Tom Coburn was a terrific oversight partner in the Senate — tough, fearless, and more interested in facts than politics,” former Democratic senator Carl Levin of Michigan said upon his friend’s retirement.
That drive for accountability made Coburn willing to sometimes take on GOP colleagues and donors over his relentless crusade against pork-barrel spending. He called earmarks — the projects that members often secured for their states in secret — “the gateway drug to our spending ruin.”
When, in 2005, Coburn challenged Alaska senator Ted Stevens, chair of the Appropriations Committee, he stood alone against his colleague’s proposed $228 million “Bridge to Nowhere” for Alaska. Stevens warned Coburn that “if we start cutting funding for individual projects, your project may be next.” But Coburn stood his ground, the bridge was never built, Stevens was defeated in his next campaign for reelection in 2008, and, most important, much of the earmark power structure in Congress was dismantled.
Despite his admirable record, most people outside Oklahoma have never heard of Coburn. Kim Strassel explained why in the Wall Street Journal in 2015, when she wrote, “The pity is that history rarely hands out awards to those who stop bad things. Tom Coburn blocked more bad ideas and lousy legislation in Congress than most Americans will ever know.”
Even left-wing journalists who made fun of his unbending social conservatism grew to respect him. Margaret Carlson, a former Time magazine columnist, called him “the most ego-free, funny, and sensible person you could meet.”
After he left the Senate, Coburn continued the battle for his ideas for another five years, championing the notion that the federal government could perform its most important work for the American people only if it decentralized authority. “Tom Coburn was a visionary who understood that the authors of our Constitution gave states the ultimate power to reform Washington,” Roman Buhler, national director of the Madison Coalition, which works to restore a balance of state and federal power, told me.
Coburn was often asked why he opposed so much of what went on in Washington. His answer was both thoughtful and succinct:
Power is like morphine. It dulls the senses, impairs judgment, and leads politicians to make choices that damage their own character and the machinery of democracy.
The best way to honor Tom Coburn’s career and his memory would be to remind ourselves that when people like him do get elected to Congress, they deserve full-throated support. Many people grow up thinking that someone like the brave senator that Jimmy Stewart played in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington never existed. Tom Coburn was living proof that such people do serve in public office.