Tom Coburn was a good man. It’s tempting to end my remembrance there, partly because I imagine him telling me—as he once did a reporter who’d asked him about his health—“you should be writing about Medicaid and Medicare instead.” But it’s also tempting because, ultimately, that’s the best way to describe the former U.S. senator from Oklahoma, who died March 28 at 72, after a battle with prostate cancer.
When people remember Coburn—a doctor who specialized in obstetrics—they’ll talk about his crusades against government waste or his unlikely friendship with President Obama. But it’s impossible to remember him without remarking on his character. From his medical practice in Muskogee to the halls of Congress, Coburn devoted his life to the God and country he loved so much. He was an exemplary husband, father, physician, and statesman. But more than anything, he was a good man.
I had the privilege of working closely with Coburn for a few years at the end of his career and the beginning of mine. By the time he joined the Manhattan Institute as a senior fellow in late 2016, he was already a kind of legendary figure. As a recent college graduate with a limited knowledge of politics and policy, I was more than intimidated by the prospect of working with “Dr. No,” a modern-day Cincinnatus who honored not one but two self-imposed term limits and found the time to deliver more than 4,000 babies while defending the American republic.
But my nerves quickly settled as I got to know Coburn and experienced his good-hearted, no-nonsense demeanor. While most lawmakers veil themselves with pomp and vagary, Tom Coburn was honest and direct. He preferred to be called “doctor” over “senator” and always spoke frankly, whether face to face or in brief emails fired off from an iPhone and appended “thx, Tom.”
Coburn displayed the same passion and conviction behind closed doors as he did on the Senate floor. While many around him lost their faith in God, democracy, or capitalism, he held strong. Whenever he thought a friend was losing sight of what mattered, he was ready to set them straight with a quote from scripture, the Founding Fathers, or Adam Smith.
As many have noted, Coburn maintained an incredible work ethic, even in his later years as he fought his illness. Case in point: I once arrived an hour early to the restaurant where we had planned to meet for breakfast, only to find him already seated, newspaper in hand, having just finished a phone call with an ailing friend. Our discussion that morning ranged from family to drug prices to the gospels. Coburn spoke insightfully on each topic, as he always did, whether from a dais or a crowded midtown cafe. Spend time in Washington political circles and you’re bound to hear countless stories like this about him. Coburn mentored so many young people that it can sometimes seem like everyone in Washington must have been in his employ or under his tutelage at one point or another.
A final note, on faith, which Coburn called his “internal check and balance.” A few years ago, I received an email from a woman editing a daily devotional. She wanted Coburn to confirm the veracity of an anecdote included in the book. According to the story, a colleague had asked Coburn how he found the courage to stand up for his beliefs, even when it would cause him trouble. He purportedly replied, “It’s because I know who I am.” I forwarded the message to him, and he replied: “She got the quote wrong. I said, ‘it’s because I know who I am, and whose I am.’” Spoken like the man of faith that Coburn was. May he rest in peace.
Photo by Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit