The Magazine

A Senator Is Born

Complications attend Tom Coburn's return to Washington.

Dec 13, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 13 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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REPUBLICAN SENATOR-ELECT Tom Coburn is proud of the number of babies he has delivered, many of them on weekends while serving in the House of Representatives. But his participation in the miracle of life can't compete with his much-more-miraculous ability to walk on water. No one has actually seen him skip lightly across the waves, but after his remarkably thorough job of burning bridges at the close of his stint in the House, walking on water is the only way Coburn could have made it back across the Potomac.

Of his congressional colleagues he has said, "Most of them are egomaniacs. There are not many normal people up here." Having promised in 1994 when elected to limit himself to three terms in the House, he checked out in 2000 to go back to his Muskogee, Oklahoma, obstetrics practice, saying: "Six years is enough." On his senatorial campaign site, he sounds the same note: "As a citizen legislator, I rejected the Washington lifestyle and I returned to Oklahoma and my family every weekend and maintained my medical practice. I will do the same as a U.S. Senator."

After he left office in 2000, Coburn founded Americans for Limited Government and wrote Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders Into Insiders. He used the book to name names and rehash his vendettas with Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and other leading Republicans. He compared corrupt Washington legislators to the Pharisees.

And when Coburn found himself in a tough primary this summer, it was payback time. He did get the endorsements of a few of his former colleagues, but when it came to writing checks, his opponent, former Oklahoma City mayor Kirk Humphreys, received donations from at least 13 senators, totaling more than $60,000. Coburn got none. In July, The Hill quoted one senior staff member disparaging Coburn's obstructionist style: "Coburn would throw himself on the train tracks instead of get control of the train."

But Coburn won the primary, and went on to beat Democrat Brad Carson by 12 points. The contest was ugly, with allegations that Coburn once sterilized a young woman without her permission surfacing late in the race. Coburn didn't shy away from inflammatory allegations either, albeit of a more general nature: "If you want to kill the American experiment," he said at one campaign event, "vote for Brad Carson."

Despite the fights he has picked, Coburn says that he's not afraid of the inevitable socially awkward moments in the Senate chamber. "They put their pants on like I do in the morning," he says.

Coburn is a living instruction manual on how easy it is to acquire a reputation as a straight-talker on Capitol Hill. News stories frequently refer to him as a "folk hero." And sure, he may have called Oklahoma state legislators "crapheads . . . that have killed the vision of anyone wanting to invest in Oklahoma," he may have characterized the governance of American Indian nations in Oklahoma as "primitive," and he may have published a book-length condemnation of his once and future colleagues in which he compared them to biblical villains. There's no doubt the man can turn a phrase. And Coburn himself would be the first to admit that the bar for straightforwardness in politicians is low. But for such a purportedly uncensored guy, he's being awfully cagey at the moment.

"I don't think now is the right time for me to comment on filibusters," he says to a question about a possible rules change that will have to be entertained on the first day of the session. But it was pretty clear what he thought about filibusters in 1999 in the House, when he staged what amounted to one of his own. He and fellow term-limiter Mark Sanford (now governor of South Carolina) offered 115 amendments to the agriculture bill, and succeeded in changing the way costs of appropriations bills were calculated before passage.

Asked what his legislative priorities are, he is vague: "Build the staff. Get to know the people. Get to talk to people. Get out there and show people that I am not the villain that they think I am right now."

This is not to say that his positions on the issues are unclear. His final year in the House, Coburn earned a 0 percent approval rating from Planned Parenthood on key votes, a 0 percent from the Human Rights Campaign, a 0 percent rating from the National Organization for Women, 100 percent from the Christian Coalition, and 100 percent from U.S. Border Control. His campaign website contains unequivocal statements like "Jerusalem is the Capital of Israel. Period," and "I oppose any increase in federal funding for the arts and support elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts."

Coburn hasn't yet spoken with Majority Leader Bill Frist about his plans for his first term. "He's pretty busy right now. There'll be plenty of time to talk to him later. I'll be sure to talk to him later." Given Coburn's reputation, Frist might be forgiven for hearing a faint note of menace in those words.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.