(March 28) Former Sen. Tom Coburn, who died Saturday morning of complications from prostate cancer, was one of the finest public servants of my lifetime.

The Oklahoma Republican, a practicing obstetrician, combined fierce devotion to principle with rigorous intellectual integrity and tremendous personal decency. One of the most hard-line conservatives in first the House and then the Senate, he nonetheless enjoyed the respect and friendship of many liberal Democrats. Not the least of these was President Barack Obama, with whom he reportedly spoke in private, as a friend and sounding board, almost weekly throughout Obama’s White House tenure.

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“I’m adamantly against 80 percent of President Obama’s policies,” Coburn told the Oklahoman newspaper. “But he is an honest liberal. … Am I to hate him because he has a different viewpoint than I do? Or should I love him and try to touch his heart and change him?”

When Coburn arrived on Capitol Hill in the “Gingrich Revolution” Republican class of 1994, he was an unyielding ideologue. Even then, though, there was a difference: Whereas some super-hard-liners are full of sound and fury without much thoughtfulness, Coburn obviously had depth and intellect.

Still, he perhaps lacked proportion. He and several conservatives clashed repeatedly with Gingrich. They were right on principle, but Gingrich may have been more practical in terms of accomplishing conservative goals. Gingrich, though, was certainly imperious with them and not always true to his word, and he tried to bully them rather than reason with them. The result, eventually, was that Coburn took part in an ill-advised, midterm, internal coup attempt against Gingrich in 1997 rather than more sensibly waiting to challenge the speaker at the end of that two-year legislative cycle.

Gingrich’s allies quashed the rebellion. Most of the coup leaders lost their political careers. Coburn, though, learned and grew. He abided by a term-limits pledge and retired from the House at the end of 2000, only to win an election to the Senate in 2004. There, he developed a legislative skill set to complement his strong conservative convictions….

[The full column is at this link.]


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