To Comfort The Afflicted
And Afflict The Comfortable

To Comfort The Afflicted And Afflict The Comfortable

Saturday, February 24, 2024


Coburn’s Real Legacy



RichardFricker-2“Course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” – Actor-director John Huston: Chinatown [1974]

I was reminded of this classic line as the nation braced for a tsunami of campaign rhetoric, claims, disinformation and downright lies.

Not by any candidate, rather by Oklahoma’s Republican Sen. Dr. Tom Coburn as he exits the political arena two years before his term expires. His public assertion is he is not retiring for health reasons [this is his third bout with cancer].

His departure triggered a special election in which Sen. Coburn, while not exactly endorsing 5th District U.S. Rep. James Lankford as his replacement, lashed out against primary opponent state Rep. T.W. Shannon, former House Speaker and Tea Party favorite, and his conservative dark money PAC supporters.

Coburn said, “I see this political economy in its very worst form with misleading advertisements and allegations against candidates. The current political advertisements by groups such as Senate Conservatives Fund and Oklahomans for a Conservative Future supporting T.W. Shannon have crossed an important line – they simply aren’t truthful and they mischaracterize James Lankford’s service in Congress.”

The senator concludes, “Trust is absolutely paramount in our republic.”

State newspapers lauded Coburn’s courage in standing against dark money and for truth. But it might have served the American people better had this epiphany occurred a little earlier in Coburn’s 20-year career of elected service.

Coburn’s comments recalled his April 23, 2007 Tulsa Press Club speech blasting single-payer insurance. The senator cited several sources of information.

I checked his U.S., Health Canada and U.K citations. At the very kindest, none of his citations held water. None. This was duly reported at

A few weeks later, in a similar speech, before one of Tulsa’s Rotary Clubs, Coburn had juxtaposed Canada and the U.K from his Press Club outing.

This wasn’t Coburn’s only brush with the forces he so recently decried. Remember the teen lesbians of Coalgate, OK?

In 2004, during his first Senate campaign against then Democrat Congressman Brad Carson [who occupied the 2nd District seat Coburn had held for three terms] Coburn told a gathering in Coalgate, “Lesbianism is so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they’ll only let one girl go to the bathroom. Now think about it. Think about that issue. How is it that that’s happened to us?”

Joe McCulley, Coalgate school superintendent responded, “He knows something I don’t know. We have not identified anything like that. We have not had to deal with any issues on that subject – ever.”

Teen lesbians were not Coburn’s first gay target. As a freshman congressman in 1994 he had learned from Newt Gingrich the effectiveness of hitting soft targets with the “Guns, God and Gays” political mantra.

He left Congress in 2000 after three terms, as promised under his self-imposed term limit philosophy. He spent the off years criticizing Congress for its spending, liberalism, sluggishness and disorganization.

During his first six years in Washington, Congressman Coburn went so far as to attempt to block aid to his own state for tornado victims. This would not be the last time Coburn looked upon victims as a fiscal irritant.

As time drew near for this Senate run President George W. Bush provided him a high profile appointment as chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Coburn had already joined the HIV/AIDS debate in Congress by proposing a ban on anonymous testing in1997. He also wanted the names of persons testing positive reported to local health agencies and withholding of funds for agencies and states failing to comply.

At a Republican gathering in early 2004, as Advisory Council chair, he spoke not about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but gays. According to Robert Schlesinger writing for Salon, the Senate hopeful said, “The gay community has infiltrated the very centers of power in every area across this country, and they wield extreme power … That agenda is the greatest threat to our freedom that we face today.”

Four years later a fellow Republican, state Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, used almost identical verbiage calling homosexuality, “the biggest threat our nation has, even more so than terrorism or Islam.”

Kern incurred the wrath of the gay community and its supporters. Ironically, Coburn was nowhere to be found – he did not rise to Kern’s defense.

Coburn had no reason to aid Kern; his open attack on gays had won the 2004 election with 53% of the vote. In the process of electing Coburn Okies also passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Coburn was on a roll.

Rep. Kern could handle the traffic. Who was going to aid of a bunch of gay Okies? It took 10 years but U.S. District Judge Terence Kern declared the marriage ban Coburn rode into office unconstitutional. Judge Kern was appointed to the bench in 1994, the same year Coburn won his first election to Congress.

In denouncing Shannon’s dark money advertisements Coburn cited Lankford as having “absolute integrity,” I tried reconciling those words with Coburn’s “anonymous hold,” a devise allowing senators to stall legislation without identifying themselves.

Coburn was notorious for its use – thus the moniker “Dr. No.”

Coburn used his hold privilege nearly 80 times. Coburn used the hold privilege, for example, on legislation to fund breast cancer research and medical benefits to veterans.

When outed, his only explanation was that enough money was already being spent on these projects. The question would be: why did he hide what he was doing?

Coburn’s hometown, Muskogee, is host to one of Oklahoma’s only two VA hospitals. Perhaps it would have been too embarrassing to tell vets they weren’t worth the money? In similar fashion even a gun totin’, gay bashin’, God fearin’ conservative gets cranky when you tell him his constituent just isn’t worth the money.

A Coburn strong point is his ability to dollar value almost anything, even sex with another man’s wife. He acted as liaison – some say bagman – between Doug Hampton and Sen. John Ensign, R-NV, in 2009 when Ensign, Coburn’s roommate, got caught bedding Hampton’s wife Cindy.

An experienced gynecologist, Coburn supervised negotiations to pay Hampton for Sen. Ensign’s indiscretions. The Senate Ethics Committee report noted, “The cost of that plan was closer to the $3 million range. Sen. Coburn responded by stating that ‘okay, that’s what I had in mind and I think is fair’ and said he would take the figure to the Ensigns.”


While $3 million may sound ambitious to the average Jack and Jill for an extra marital romp, Coburn takes care of his own. We’re talking U.S. senator and daughter of a man who owns a couple of casinos – translation funding.

Dr. No knows.

Other Coburn adventures include his anonymous hold on the $1.15 billion aide package to Haiti. Clark Matthews, co-founder of and contributor to the satirical Oklahoma City blog The Lost Ogle, wrote, “Sen. Coburn put an anonymous hold on the distribution of the funds over concerns that up to 0.438% of that funding bothered him. Of course, I guess I can understand the hold since that money would only be helping a bunch of people who aren’t Americans with their blackness and speaking of the French. Why would you expect him to show any empathy?”

Given Coburn’s legislative style it is understandable why he would be dismayed over the behavior of the Shannon campaign misrepresenting issues. Just wonder why he wasn’t dismayed back in 1994 when the NRA, tobacco lobby and cattle interests ran advertisements against 2nd District Congressman Mike Synar whose seat Coburn wanted.

Synar was a progressive congressman who had served the district since 1978. Smelling blood in the water as the 1994 election approached, conservative lobby groups ran ads against Synar while Coburn waited in the wings. Synar was defeated by a retired school superintendent who subsequently lost to Coburn’s well-financed and crafted campaign.

While it wasn’t called “dark money” at that time, it could well be considered one of the first experiments in campaign engineering using non-candidate funds. And it worked.

Given Coburn’s experience, it is easy to see how he is inclined to say, “The truth is, I don’t much care for political campaigns. They are dominated by career politicians and their operatives who have created a perverse but lucrative professional political industry.”

Coburn has had 20 years and five campaigns to ferret out his observations. He has also had that time to build a vast network of minions, lackeys and beholders. So, when the retiring senator signals his preference, the tentacles move and things happen as they did in the Oklahoma GOP primary Tuesday.

Former speaker Shannon is out of a job. Congressman, and Coburn favorite, Lankford took the seven-candidate outing with 57% of the vote. He will face the winner of the Aug. 26 Democratic primary for his mentor’s seat.

Langford acknowledged Coburn’s political reach election night: “The legacy he has laid down for our state and our nation is a long shadow. His are shoes that cannot possibly be filled, but it is a responsibility we have to take on.”

Well, the ballots are in, the counting’s done, we move to August runoffs. Out in the somewhere of a sunny Oklahoma morning I see Huston and Jack Nicholson sharing a lunch of whole cooked fish.

I ask, of no one in particular, just how old and ugly does a building have to be?

Richard L. Fricker lives in Tulsa, OK, and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer. His latest book, The Last Day of the War, is available at or at


Coburn caricature by DonkeyHotey


Arnold Hamilton
Arnold Hamilton
Arnold Hamilton became editor of The Observer in September 2006. Previously, he served nearly two decades as the Dallas Morning News’ Oklahoma Bureau chief. He also covered government and politics for the San Jose Mercury News, the Dallas Times Herald, the Tulsa Tribune and the Oklahoma Journal.
Mark Krawczyk
Mark Krawczyk
March 9, 2023
Exceptional reporting about goings on in my home state as well as informative opinion pieces that makes people think about issues of the day...........get a SUBSCRIPTION FOLKS!!!!!!!
Brette Pruitt
Brette Pruitt
September 5, 2022
The Observer carries on the "give 'em hell" tradition of its founder, the late Frosty Troy. I read it from cover to cover. A progressive wouldn't be able to live in a red state without it.