"In any election,” Tom Coburn often says, “you should vote for the candidate who will give up the most if they win.” All things being equal, we should prefer politicians who have accomplished something in their lives beyond government work—and who are willing to sacrifice it, at least temporarily, to serve the country at a cost to their convenience and comfort. During his 6 years in the House of Representatives and 10 more in the Senate, Coburn has embodied his own principle. He went to medical school after a successful career in business and became an obstetrician when he was 35. He built a lucrative practice in his hometown of Muskogee, Oklahoma. He waited until he was 46 to seek public office, after he’d delivered 4,000 babies. First things first.
Coburn retires from the Senate at the end of this Congress, and we’ll miss him. His résumé makes him an increasingly rare bird in the Washington aviary. Among “antigovernment” Republicans no less than Leviathan-loving liberals, our political ranks brim over with men and women whose careers began in second grade with their first campaign for hall monitor and went on from there, with perhaps a brief detour to law school offering them their closest view of the push and pull of normal commercial life. Coburn calls himself a “citizen legislator,” and the archaic title fits. Single-handed, he restored the phrase “public service” to good repute in Washington, at least for his admirers.
He’s done so by being a pest. This is the kindest word we can come up with, though enemies both in and of out of his party prefer surlier tags like crank and headcase. Coburn commandeered every parliamentary maneuver available to a lone senator and used his mastery to slow the Senate down and draw attention to the untoward details of business-as-usual: absurd expenditures, cheap favors for the well-to-do, presidential appointments for dolts and clowns, and every imaginable accounting trick in service of parochial rather than national interests, all of it undertaken on borrowed money. His endless amendments and points of order became a kind of shaming, directed at people who long ago abandoned shame. Coburn trained an outsider’s eye on the work of insiders and delivered the news, usually bad. “If we applied the same standards to Congress that we apply to Enron,” he once said of congressional book-juggling, “everybody here would go to jail.”
But he’s also a gentleman. Much of Coburn’s appeal lies in an apparently bottomless insouciance. (He once mentioned that he was well into college before he even heard of marijuana, which proves that Merle Haggard was right: They really didn’t smoke it in Muskogee.) In his most passionate moments he seemed baffled that the workings of politics and government don’t operate disinterestedly and out in the open, for all to see, as the Founders intended. He spent a fair amount of time in his farewell speech offering apologies. “To those of you through the years whom I have offended, I truly apologize,” he said, though even the sincerest apology couldn’t make him cross his view of the Constitution. “I believe the enumerated powers meant something,” he went on. “When I have offended, I believe it has been on the basis of my belief in Article I, Section 8.” That’s the section listing the things Congress is permitted by the Constitution to do. Senators might want to get staff to look it up.
A pest and a gentleman and a man of firm principle—but not an ideologue, the off-the-shelf epithet tossed at him by a ditzy press and exasperated colleagues. His pragmatism is another reason he was always worth paying attention to. The lack of ideological rigidity most often served to expose the rigidity of others. When he sponsored a bill to cut agriculture subsidies to people who make more than $1 million a year, he was blocked by the same Democrats who complain that millionaires are undertaxed. When he grudgingly supported the timid tax increases in the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction proposal, he was disparaged by Republicans who say our debt is a form of national suicide—but nothing to raise taxes over. Most of the time he was asking his colleagues to put their money where their mouths were. And no one ever caught him in double-dealing or hypocrisy. That cut in agriculture subsidies, for example: It applied to millionaires in Oklahoma too. They voted for him anyway.
After his farewell speech, his fellow senators gave Coburn a standing ovation. We join his countless admirers in the general applause, but we can’t help but wonder: Were the senators cheering his speech or his decision to retire and—finally—leave them alone?