The passing of Senator Tom Coburn last week went unnoticed by most Americans outside his home state of Oklahoma. That’s not because Senator Coburn was an insignificant player in national politics. His lack of name recognition is due primarily to Americans’ busy lives—although one might question the nature of that busyness. All too often, apart from earning a living, entertainment occupies more of most Americans’ free time than does attention to the politics that largely shape our lifestyles. But that’s a topic for another blog.
I suspect that readers of this blog are, generally, more politically astute than the average American, so most of you have likely at least heard the name Tom Coburn. And many of you are also likely to have a less than positive view of the late senator. As both a representative and senator, Coburn was an unapologetic Christian conservative who advocated most of the views liberals associate with conservatives. Most of you would not have considered him to be a friend of liberals.
But President Barack Obama considered Tom Coburn a friend. “I would also seek out people like Tom Coburn, who is probably the most conservative member of the U.S. Senate,” Obama said at a campaign event in 2007. “He has become a friend of mine.” And the feeling was mutual. While the two men could hardly have been further apart politically and philosophically, each understood and appreciated the concept of disagreeing agreeably. Each understood that their differences did not have to make them enemies. Each understood that one can learn—and even become a better person—by listening to and analyzing their opponents’ views.
Each understood that one can learn—and even become a better person—by listening to and analyzing their opponents’ views.
While I never met nor spoke with Senator Coburn, I did, on a few occasions, have interactions with Roland Foster, one of Coburn’s closest aides and advisers. (Yes, my life has taken some strange turns over the decades.) In the early 2000s I was an editor in the Public Policy division of the ultra-conservative evangelical ministry Focus on the Family. Coburn, at the time a congressman, was a staunch Focus ally, and many of us in Public Policy conversed regularly with his chief aide, Roland Foster.
Because of that alliance, I came to learn quite a bit about the obstetrician turned politician. Yes, prior to entering politics, Coburn was a doctor who delivered thousands of babies. Those delivery experiences no doubt played into his resolute opposition to abortion. Whether one agrees with his abortion stance or not, I can attest to the sincerity of his convictions. I can also state with certainty that Tom Coburn was no mindless Trump lackey like most of today’s Republican politicians.
Alongside Coburn’s resolute opposition to abortion was his equally resolute—and congruent—fight against the ever-increasing federal deficit. He would challenge any of his congressional colleagues on these issues, regardless of party affiliation. Tom Coburn was a man of principles above party. Whether one agrees with those principles is a topic for another discussion—or blog. But his dedication to principles is, I think, what endeared him to Barack Obama, also a man of principles. The two men held to many different principles, but both understood that an unprincipled life is an empty life.
And that’s why Coburn—whose political views were closer to Donald Trump’s than to Barack Obama’s—was not a fan of our current president. At one point, Coburn spoke of Trump as having “a personality disorder.” Trump’s personality disorder is evident in his obvious lack of any principles. Even the now unabashedly pro-Trump publication The Federalist recognized Trump’s utter lack of principles back in 2016—when that publication still had a few unwavering principles of its own.
Back then, Robert Trancinski wrote this in The Federalist:
Oscar Wilde famously said that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. Even when the hypocrite fails to live up to his morals, he still affirms the validity of morality itself by acknowledging that he is supposed to be living up to them. It’s an old dilemma. What’s worse: someone who professes high standards but falls short of them, or someone who has no standards at all?
Yes, most politicians are pragmatic and opportunistic when push comes to shove. But they at least pay political principles the tribute of claiming to have some regard for them. Trump doesn’t do this, and the danger is that this mindset will spread to the rest of the Republican Party.
What a prophetic analysis that was. That unprincipled mindset has indeed spread to the rest of the Republican Party, as was abundantly evident in the impeachment hearings.
Sans any principles—such as the principle of regard for the dignity of every human being—Trump has no compunction about degrading anyone who disagrees with him or who fails to pay obeisance to him. That’s not a characteristic that develops genuine friendships. Trump has admirers, other Republicans who similarly lack any firm principles. But he has no real friends, nothing like the politically transcendent friendship of Barack Obama and Tom Coburn.
Rest in peace, Tom Coburn. I’m sure your friend Barack Obama has voiced this same sentiment.