Last night, America lost a great statesman.
Tom Coburn, who represented Oklahoma in the U.S. House for six years and the U.S. Senate for ten, died after a long battle with cancer.
The principles that he espoused – and the manner in which he lived, both personally and professionally – led Family Policy Foundation in 2015 to launch the Coburn Statesman Award. Each year the award is given to an elected official who has demonstrated steadfast, principled public service characterized by a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, faithfulness to family, and respect for colleagues and constituents as exemplified by Tom Coburn.
The choice in naming the award was not difficult. That’s because Sen. Coburn modeled three things that we emphasize at the Statesmen Academy:
- Courage. If you know anything about Sen. Coburn’s career, you probably understand that. All the blocked bills. Doing things that he knew would make colleagues angry.
- Prudence. He wasn’t a bomb thrower. Bold, yes – but always strategic.
- Respect. He treated people – even his adversaries – respectfully.
In some ways, that created a mass of seeming contradictions. For example, in 2004 he reached out to a young senator by the name of Barack Obama. They became friends, had regular phone calls, and enjoyed a genuine friendship – even as Sen. Coburn made clear that Obama’s policies were ruining the country.
During his time in Washington, he was best known for his relentless assault on government waste. He would even take on members of his own party. You may recall the “Bridge to Nowhere” – a pet project of Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska. That boondoggle became famous because of Sen. Coburn.
It’s very controversial for a senator to put a hold on a bill, yet at any one time he had holds on 60 or 70 bills. But he did it out of conviction, not political retribution. And he engaged respectfully, sending a personal note to tell the sponsor of the bill that he was holding: “We’re nice to work with, but you have to work with us.”
He was also a regular speaker at the Statesmen Academy, imparting his principles to new generations of developing statesmen and women. The Q&A sessions with Dr. Coburn – who was also a physician – were always one of the highlights of attendees.
During those conversational talks, he challenged the up-and-coming leaders to follow seven principles in their legislative careers:
- Know your principles.
- Learn the rules.
- Read the bills.
- Have an agenda and stay on offense.
- Find common ground.
- Treat adversaries with respect.
- Don’t be afraid to lose.
Regarding the first principle, he told the Statesmen Academy attendees: “Knowing what you believe – and being willing to take a stand for what you believe – is THE most important thing when you’re serving in the legislature.”
And along the way, he illustrated his principles with powerful stories that underscored his points. For example, remember the Bridge to Nowhere? He actually lost that battle, but it was a perfect illustration for principle #7 – Don’t be afraid to lose.
“I lost that vote,” Coburn told the Academy attendees. “Thirteen or fourteen people voted with me. But we really won – because that’s what ended earmarks.”
Our prayers are with Tom Coburn’s family – including the beloved grandkids that he loved to talk about. Our prayers are also with his beloved country. May we faithfully live out the godly principles that he put into practice.
Statesmen Academy Director