Charles Hurt: Remembering Tom Coburn, the Last Honest Man in Washington

Charles Hurt: Remembering Tom Coburn, the Last Honest Man in Washington

Charles Hurt: Remembering Tom Coburn, the Last Honest Man in Washington

Tom Coburn was the last honest man in Washington.

In politics today, you have Democrats and Republicans. You have so-called liberals and conservatives. And you have self-styled “progressives” and libertarians.

These people love labels. They love being labeled. That’s because they love talking about themselves. And they love it, even more, to hear other people talking about them.

“She’s a real ‘progressive,’ ” people say about the newest child-legislator as she pounds on the rostrum demanding that more of the money you earned be taken from you and used on old, broken-down, evil socialist scams that have been debunked for over 100 years now. “Progressive”?

Or, “Look at that great libertarian talk!” they say about some old coot demanding an end to the “war on drugs” in America — a truly cockamamie scheme that always winds up having you and me pay more taxes rehabbing losers, jailing them for other crimes, or supplying them directly with needles and methadone.

This was not Tom Coburn.

He was a doctor. He delivered babies. If he screwed up, if he failed to know exactly what he was doing, if he decided to grandstand in the delivery room, somebody would die.

Such principles, of course, run counter to all that Washington stands for today. When Dr. Coburn refused to give up his practice back home, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid — one of the most dishonest and destructive people to ever occupy a seat in Congress — slapped Dr. Coburn with “ethics charges” for earning outside income.

You see, in Washington, open theft is the only acceptable form of income. Dr. Coburn retaliated and settled the “ethics charges” by continuing to deliver babies back home — for free.

Dr. Coburn came to Washington to represent the good people of Oklahoma with the purest of intentions. He came as a citizen legislator — precisely as the Founders intended — to guard ferociously the interests of his constituents back home.

Those interests also happened to line up exactly with the interests of most constituents around the country.

In a perfect display of his electoral humility, Dr. Coburn is among the rarest of politicians who kept every promise he ever made to limit his own terms in Congress. Why does it always seem like only the good are cut down by principles?

Dr. Coburn did not mount the barricades and proclaim that the federal government served no purpose whatsoever. Nor was he a demagogue who claimed the federal government was the answer to every problem.

He understood — as the Founders did — that there are functions only a federal government can perform. Dr. Coburn just wanted the government to perform those functions wisely, effectively and economically.

Most important — and this is what really set him apart from so many of the gasbags in Washington these days — Dr. Coburn was not interested in grandstanding without result. Or, even worse, grandstanding only to emerge with a legislative product that was even worse.

He was never a member of any Suicide Caucus. He was not interested in “poison pills” or legislative Scud missiles.

Dr. Coburn never held a leadership position. He was never a committee chairman. He learned the rules of the House and the Senate and used those rules to chip away at the federal Leviathan.

Certainly, he was an agonizing thorn in the side of Republican leadership. Yet even Republican Leader Mitch McConnell realized Dr. Coburn’s genius, saying that his nickname “Dr. No” failed to fully capture him.

Dr. Coburn “did not let his strong principles sideline him from creative policymaking or bipartisan cooperation,” Mr. McConnell said.

“Tom’s convictions did not drive him away from the table. They inspired him to become a central player.”

Dr. Coburn was intelligent, diligent and utterly without self-regard. If you made the mistake of calling him “Sen. Coburn,” he might correct you. “Dr. Coburn” was fine.

• Charles Hurt can be reached at or @charleshurt on Twitter.

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