Sen. Tom Coburn, nice guy or noxious guy?

Tom Coburn
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) recently announced he is retiring. Should we be sad or glad to see him go?
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

We’ve never met the man, so we’re willing to stipulate that Sen. Tom Coburn (R- Okla.), a physician who recently announced his early retirement from the Senate, is a sweetheart to have at a dinner party.

That’s the bottom line on Coburn offered by Bloomberg columnist Margaret Carlson, who seems genuinely bereft at the thought of his leaving Washington. “He was the most ego-free, funny and sensible person you could meet,” she wrote a few days ago. 

Coburn is evidently considered an engaging fellow in Washington facing serious medical problems, so you can count Carlson’s piece as the harbinger of a flood of similar insider encomiums. 

Curiously, however, there’s very little in Carlson’s column about the reason that any of us outside Washington might care one whit about Coburn -- his positions on a host of important issues, or his tactics for making his positions stick. For example, that he proudly owned up to being a “global warming denier,” calling the science on the phenomenon “malarkey.” This is Carlson’s “most sensible person." 


A thorough rundown of Coburn’s position is here. It shows that he consistently voted against abortion rights. That he voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act last year. That he voted against allowing gay adoptions in Washington, D.C. That he has consistently voted to cut taxes on the wealthy. 

Carlson reports that Coburn refused to sign "his conservative roommate Sen. Mike Lee’s manifesto calling for defunding Obamacare, because he thought it was the wrong way to go.”

What was the right way to go, in Coburn’s view? Carlson doesn’t say, but the record exists. He tried to hobble the law by offering a raft of fatuous and obnoxious amendments. One would bar “coverage of Viagra and other ED medications to convicted child molesters, rapists and sex offenders.”

Since this would force every health plan to inquire into its customers’ personal backgrounds before providing them service, it was an obvious nonstarter, aimed solely at cornering Democrats into casting a vote that could be used to embarrass them later. Coburn’s Senate colleague Max Baucus (D-Mont.) observed that the amendment made “a mockery of the Senate,” and called it “a crass political stunt aimed at making 30-second commercials, not public policy." This is the man Carlson says has “a doctor’s wisdom of life and death.”


Coburn has been a consistent enemy of Social Security, which he has favored privatizing. He’s especially bugged about Social Security disability insurance. He regards it as a haven for fraud and malingering, despite numerous studies that find the fraud rate to be minimal.

Coburn’s conclusions came from a 2012 Republican staff study for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. At the time, more than 10.6 million Americans were receiving disability benefits. Coburn’s staff examined a grand total of 300 case files from three largely poverty-stricken counties to conclude that more than a quarter of agency reviews of disability claims were faulty.

Last year, Coburn assisted “60 Minutes” to put out an egregiously misreported piece on the disability program. He appeared on camera to support the program’s claim that the disability program has become “a secret welfare system ... ravaged by waste and fraud.” He asked, disingenuously: “Where’d all those disabled people come from?” As we pointed out after the piece aired, there was no mystery -- if Coburn had bothered to look. They came from the aging of America, the entry of women into the workforce and economic factors.  

Many of the paeans to Coburn you’ll be reading will no doubt point to his participation in any number of bipartisan legislative negotiating efforts. They may even mention his partnership with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on a measure to require more disclosures about the wrist-slap financial penalties imposed on misbehaving financial firms. So, sure, Coburn deserves points for engaging the other side of the aisle. But how shall they be weighed in the balance of his entire career? 

That brings us back to Carlson’s column. What is its purpose? Or more precisely, who is its audience? Similar pieces about the human side of public figures whose professional activities appear noxious to many non-insiders are common in Washington journalism.

The best gloss on the genre was penned by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic after the death of Andrew Breitbart occasioned a spate of pieces about what a swell guy Breitbart was, if you only got to know him up close and personal. After observing that Breitbart’s professional game was to smear people with lies, deceit and slander, Coates observed:

“I have heard it said by some fellow liberals that Breitbart was in fact a good person, that his public persona was not the same as his private. This kind of praise is so broadly true of most controversial public figures as to be meaningless. ... Breitbart may well have been an excellent father and a great friend but that is not why we are talking about him. We are noting his death because of the impact he had on our politics and our conversation. It must be said that that impact was for the worse. Any talk of his private life is an attempt to change the subject and avoid discomfiting truths.”

The same applies to Coburn. There are many people who won’t think that his politics were as charming and uplifting as his personal front. A fair assessment of the man relevant to readers outside the D.C. club would bear in mind the famous inscription on the tomb of the English architect Christopher Wren: “If you seek his monument, look around you.”  


Coburn’s monument is a nation that still fails to come to grips with the reality of climate change. It’s a nation in which women find it harder to escape domestic violence and have less access to reproductive rights, in which the tax code continues to foster income inequality, in which disabled Americans are vilified as layabouts and the federal program that assists them is hobbled by underfunding. 

So it’s said that with Coburn’s departure from the Senate there will be one less funny, entertaining guy around the Washington dinner table. That’s probably true. It’s just not important.