Tom Coburn, a conservative physician who represented Oklahoma in the U.S. House for six years and in the U.S. Senate for 10 years, died overnight two weeks after his 72nd birthday.
Coburn retired from politics in 2015 while battling cancer, shortening a career that often focused on exposing government bloat and emphasizing friendship over partisanship. Dubbed “Dr. No” for his opposition to deficit spending and expansion of welfare programs, Coburn received attention during the presidency of Barack Obama for his friendship with the Illinois Democrat that formed when the pair served in the U.S. Senate together.
Coburn graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Oklahoma State University in 1970 and completed his degree from the University of Oklahoma Medical School in 1983.
Tom Coburn remembered as ‘an Oklahoma original’
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) interned for Coburn while he was in the U.S. House. He also worked on Coburn’s U.S. Senate campaign in 2004 and took a job as Coburn’s state government liaison after the election.
“One of the greatest honors of my life was to have known and worked for Dr. Tom Coburn,” Treat said in a statement. “He was a mentor to me and lived out a great example of how to serve with conviction, honor and compassion. Whether it was fighting for the unborn or the next generation of Americans, he was unshakeable in his convictions, regardless of the extreme political or public pressures, and was successful in pulling America back to its core values and principles.”
In discussing his thought process on important bills or big policy topics in the Oklahoma Legislature, Treat occasionally references his time working for Coburn, who he said had a “profound impact” on his life.
“He was a man of God devoted to his family and friends, and not afraid to let anyone know that. I’m saddened by his passing, and my heart is with his family and all those who had the great fortune to have worked for him over the years,” Treat said. “Besides family, no one has had a more profound impact on my life than Tom Coburn. His impact on our nation was real and his legacy lives on through all of those who were blessed to know and learn from him.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt referred to Coburn as a “legend.”
“We lost a giant today — an Oklahoma legend. Dr. Coburn devoted his life to serving others both by way of his career as a physician and by tirelessly fighting for our country as a true statesman,” Stitt said in a statement. “Our state and our nation are better because of the lessons in fiscal responsibility we’ve learned from Dr. Coburn and I pray especially in these trying times ahead of us that we can find ways to ensure his legacy lives on.”
Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK4) also released a statement this morning.
“He was an Oklahoma original — a politician who hated politics. He disliked campaigns, but he never lost an election. Voters appreciated his strong conservative views, his candor and his honesty as a person,” Cole said. “Tom felt a strong call to serve his fellow Oklahomans as both a physician and an elected official. He did both with genuine personal integrity. In Oklahoma and far beyond, Tom became a legendary figure who fiercely fought for what he believed in and what he thought was best for future generations of Americans. And he did so with great conviction and resolve.”
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter pointed to Coburn’s relationships and respect among both Republicans and Democrats in Washington.
“I was privileged to know Tom as a friend and colleague. He was a man of principle and dauntless in his pursuit of conservative policy objectives. I often thought of him as the embodiment of Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Man in the Arena’ comment in his Citizenship in a Republic speech, which surmised that the credit belongs to the man who dares greatly,” Hunter said. “Despite the partisan divide in Washington, Tom managed to earn respect on both sides of the political aisle. He spent his legislative career as an ardent supporter of pro-life policies, second amendment rights, health care reform and fighting against wasteful government spending.”
University of Oklahoma professor Keith Gaddie, whose years in the political science department overlapped Coburn’s time in the U.S. Senate, praised the physician-turned politician as a friend.
“Whether you agreed or disagreed with Tom Coburn, you knew you were hearing what the man thought. And, you knew he had done his research,” Gaddie said. “One of his habits was to have staff research issues and then debate him. This served two purposes. First, it honed his arguments in defense of his position. But, from time to time, the process would also change his mind.”
Gaddie called Coburn “remarkable” for his ability to look past ideology.
“He told me once, in an on-air interview, that the two members of the Senate he would keep were Russ Feingold and Barack Obama, who were among the most liberal members of the Senate,” Gaddie recalled. “He admired their sincerity and consistency, and could work with them on common interests. And it was this quality, combined with his willingness to keep his word on promises like voluntary term limits, that were admirable.”
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) released a statement around noon Saturday.
“Oklahoma has suffered an incredible loss. Dr. Coburn was a respected conservative voice, a principled leader, a fearless advocate for what was right and was resolute in his faith in Jesus Christ,” Inhofe said. “I had the distinct honor of serving with him. Kay and I are praying for his wife, Carolyn, and his entire family in this painful time. His loss will be mourned in Oklahoma and throughout our nation.”
House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) released a statement around noon Saturday.
“Tom Coburn embodied Oklahoma because he stood fearlessly firm on his principles, whether that meant standing alone or standing with the crowd,” McCall said. “A true citizen legislator, he was a force for change whose legacy will stay with us always. He was successful in politics, medicine and business, but never forgot his faith in Jesus Christ. My family has his in our prayers during this difficult time.”
In 2014, 60 Minutes profiled Coburn as he prepared to depart Washington.
“Everybody is going to die — from something,” Coburn told Leslie Stahl. “So the deal is, how do you use each day to move things forward for both you and the people you love, but also the country you love?”
(Update: This post was updated at 1:05 p.m. Saturday, March 28, to include comments from Inhofe and McCall.)