Washington From the Inside
Ex-Rep. Coburn’s Book Addresses Capitol Hill’s ‘Breach of Trust’
Former Oklahoma Rep. Tom Coburn (R) had just delivered a baby girl when it came time to do an interview for his new book “Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders into Insiders.” An obstetrician in civilian life — though he delivered more than 400 babies during his tenure in Congress — Coburn becomes a pastor passionate in preaching for salvation when it comes to the government’s problems.
But instead of the Bible, Coburn preaches the gospel of the Constitution: “There are more people in Washington addicted to power than doing the right thing — and the right thing is following the Constitution.”
The father of three had never considered running for political office and thought that as “a family physician in Muskogee, Okla., it seemed ludicrous.” However, Coburn said he believes voters need to “put people in [office] who aren’t interested in staying there.”
Coburn writes that he decided to take the chance in 1994 after waking up one morning “with the sudden realization that I should run for Congress.”
He won 52 percent to 48 percent against Virgil Cooper, a 71-year-old retired schoolteacher who had managed to beat 16-year incumbent Rep. Mike Synar (D) in the primary.
Thirteen Republicans, including Coburn, ran in 1994 with the commitment of limiting their service to three terms. In those six years, Coburn says he realized the full extent of the government’s breach of trust with the public. He conceived the idea for the book six months before his final term ended in 2000 and enlisted the help of his press secretary, John Hart, who now serves as deputy chief of staff and communications director for Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
“I thought it was an important thing to do for two reasons: One, it put down on paper the problems I saw [in Congress] and two, it was a way to let out my frustrations,” Coburn said.
As one of 73 Republican freshmen elected to the House in 1994 under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) “Contract with America,” Coburn came to “storm the castle” (as his first chapter is titled) and create a revolution.
Yet, “we did not anticipate how difficult it would be for Republicans to put the genie of big government back in its bottle,” he wrote in the third chapter, “The Culture of Washington.”
His book chronicles his personal encounters with the government in terms of actual events, votes and private meetings. The book opens with Coburn en route to a meeting with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) pops his head into the meeting to discuss funding for F-22 fighter planes with Hastert. Coburn takes the opportunity to urge fiscal restraint to the big dogs of the Republican leadership.
“After I finished my speech,” Coburn writes, “Lott looked at me, rested his chin on his hand, and said in his Mississippi baritone drawl: ‘Well, I’ve got an election coming up in 2000. After that we can have a good government.’”
Coburn later notes that Lott’s reaction “was the norm, not the exception” and continues to describe the sins of the government in terms of political careerism, “the self-centered philosophy of governing to win the next election above all else.”
Coburn doesn’t blame the failed Contract with America on the naivete of the freshman revolutionaries, but on the leadership who were more concerned with their own re-elections.
“I thought we could have changed more [but] we had failed leadership,” Coburn said. “If only [then-Sen.] Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich had not caved in on the government shutdown.”
What Coburn drives home in his book is that the majority of the Members of Congress have succumbed to the pursuit of power.
“I believe you come to a point in time in Washington when you start thinking more about yourself than your constituents,” Coburn said. “It’s natural human behavior.”
Coburn has not left the limelight of public service. He serves on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS — an unpaid position — and is chairman of Americans for Limited Government, an advocacy group.
Coburn hopes that his book reaches enough people who will demand change.
“The people can change what happens in Washington … [and] I’m going to dedicate the rest of my lifetime in making people aware of the problems.”