Coburn Rails, Apologizes

Posted June 10, 2005 at 6:28pm

Hey, Ted Stevens and Robert Byrd: Hang it up! And John McCain, what are you thinking? You turn 69 in August. Start cleaning out your desk!

In the estimation of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), career politicians are why this country is in such a mess, and he’s made no secret of his distaste for his fellow lawmakers’ penchant for pork-barrel spending. And as he recently told a small gathering at the Heritage Foundation, Coburn can’t fathom why any person would want to serve as a Senator beyond the ripe old age of 68.

“Do you get your significance from your job and the position that you hold?” Coburn asked, according to a videotape of his May speech provided by the conservative think tank. “Or do you get your significance from somewhere else in life? I don’t know the answer to that.”

He added, “I am term-limited in the U.S. Senate. I made a pledge. I will stick with it. As a matter of fact, why would you want to be up here when you are 68 years of age? If you have any other type of life, this is the last place you would want to be.”

Oops. Nearly a third of Coburn’s colleagues already have reached this milestone, or will do so by the end of this year.

Not exactly the most obvious way to make new friends and cultivate allies — especially when they could help you overturn a Senate rule that forbids you from practicing your first love, medicine.

However, the shoot-from-the-hip Oklahoman also believes in contrition. In a personal, two-paragraph letter written to 99 of his colleagues last month, Coburn offered a blanket apology for his remarks.

“I am writing to ask for your personal forgiveness for the inappropriate comment I recently made that appeared to have demeaned the service and personal lives of many of our fellow Senators,” Coburn wrote in his May 27 letter. “I struggle daily with a critical spirit, which at times is verbalized.”

He concluded, “I want you to know that I certainly recognize your sacrifice, your dedication, and your commitment. I am honored to work with you to make our country great and a beacon of hope and freedom.”

The personal note is astonishing, given the rarity of a Senator offering a mea culpa for his or her actions — or even acknowledging a weakness, such as having to “struggle daily” with any aspect of their personality.

What is even more astounding is that many of his colleagues said they had no idea what he was apologizing for.

“I didn’t know what it was about,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who at 71 and after 28 years in the Senate remains a sprightly figure on Capitol Hill. “That is his view. I love the guy.”

And the forgiveness was bipartisan.

“I sent him a note back and I said what I have said over and over: ‘I believe in redemption, personally and politically,’” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a youthful 60-year-old who has served in Congress since 1983. “Whatever was said is history and I am looking forward to finding an opportunity to work with him in the future.”

The blunt Oklahoman refused several opportunities to discuss the letter, and said on one occasion last week that “it was personal notes to individual Senators, and that is out of bounds.”

But Coburn is more than willing to rail against making elected office a career.

“I think he got most of us there,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “I do think the deficit and trying to adhere to try and control it should affect people when they run for re-election.”

Lott, for the record, is 63 and has served in Congress since 1973.

Despite his apology, Coburn does not appear to be backing down from his belief that Congress should be made up of citizen legislators.

In an April speech to the Cato Institute, Coburn described Congress as a “good old boy network.”

“This is, ‘You give me mine, I will give you yours, and we will all walk down and all get re-elected,’” Coburn said in describing what he sees as the unholy alliances on Capitol Hill. “And until that process changes, until we are really open and the American people get a touch and a flavor of what really happens and how Congress really works, we are not going to change it.”

But Coburn did predict in his speech to the libertarian think tank that this would eventually happen. He hazarded a guess that the public would eventually revolt against the current system and run the careless-spending incumbents out of office.

“One or two things is going to happen,” he said. “We are going to have a wonderful enlightening revolution of thought that says we are going to throw out careerists, or we are going to have an economic disaster that says we are going to throw out careerists. And unfortunately I think the latter is much more likely.”

He also suggested that a fiscal conservative can win without the support of the national party. Coburn used his own maverick 2004 campaign as an example of how a candidate can tap into powerful constituency groups to win election without the support of the GOP establishment. Most Oklahoma and national Republican leaders backed Coburn’s primary opponent, former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, but Coburn won anyway.

“I think it is possible,” he told the Cato audience. “I just think you have to organize outside the party structure and penetrate the party structure. I think it is possible.”

The key to winning, Coburn said, is choosing a candidate who understands that a seat in Congress is not a long-term job.

“My political career is meaningless,” he said. “And as soon as it becomes meaningful to me, I will have no effectiveness up here whatsoever. It can’t be about me. It has to be about the future.”

While Coburn did not address the letter with Roll Call, he did elaborate on the Cato speech.

“I am critical of everybody, whether they are Republican or Democrat, that is spending our children and grandchildren’s future,” he said. “And I am going to work hard to try to limit that.”

As for voters, Coburn said he thinks “they should hold their Member accountable and then run activists against people who aren’t going to do it.”

Not only does the 57-year-old Coburn have an uphill battle ahead of him as he tries to rein in spending, but he also faces long odds in his bid to continue delivering babies.

“I am trying to see if there is any way we can do anything that would address his situation in an acceptable way,” Lott said of Coburn’s request to continue treating patients. Lott, chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, noted that opposition from the Ethics Committee will likely prevent him from continuing to practice medicine. “If we can’t find a way to do it we are just going to have to say we can’t do it.”

The Ethics Committee has told Coburn to shut down his practice by Sept. 30. Perhaps the Oklahoman might consider sending early birthday greetings to Ethics Committee members George Voinovich (R-Ohio), who turns 69 on July 15; Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who turns 70 on April 20; Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), who turns 73 on Feb. 17; and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), who turns 81 on Sept. 11.