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Doctor's Order

"Yes. But he's serious."

Charles Pearson says Coburn talked about Washington with no love, really, "just the place where he worked." But Coburn is "his best friend, closer than a brother," so he can see that Coburn was getting restless as just a country doctor again.

"He likes the politics, I'll tell you that," he says, and compares Coburn to Hollywood stars who complain about too much fame. "The adrenaline flow, being in the know. He's had a taste of it and he likes it."

"Look, I got my finger in the dike," says Oklahoma Republican (and physician) Tom Coburn, describing his role in the new Senate. (John Clanton For The Washington Post)

'Love Them, Not Judge Them'

Outside Oklahoma, Coburn is notorious for his apocalyptic pronouncements about filth on television, homosexuality, corrupt politicians. It's never clear if he just can't help himself or he does it on purpose. "It's like he was crazy in the right direction," says a frustrated ally of Carson, his recent opponent.

Take the "rampant lesbianism" quote. Here is the context: At a town hall meeting in Hugo, Okla., on Aug. 31, Coburn said that a campaign worker had told him that "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 has that happened to us?"

Now, Coburn is defensive and says "rampant" was not his word, that he was merely quoting what some school official had told his campaign worker. But he agreed with the school official. And in defending himself, he digs in deeper.

"To me the risk is, you know, for children," he says. "What are the influences on our children that direct them away from where you as a parent might want them to go?" He says he knows gay people, has had dinner with one or two. He has patients "who used to be gay and are not." His job is to "love them, not judge them," he says. They are sinners no different from him.

Then he wends his way to, well, hear him out: "Not long ago I watched a special on PBS about red-tailed hawks. It was a wonderful story about a red-tailed hawk that had landed in Central Park. And the point they made throughout was the importance of a mother and father to children and each one had distinct roles they played which made them capable of surviving. That is a great way, it's the intended way. It doesn't mean we can't do it another way. The question is not, is something terrible, but should we shoot for what's best?"

Coburn's grappling with sin and redemption have made for some interesting run-ins with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is openly gay. In his first year in Congress Coburn voted against an amendment Frank had introduced to cut spending even though he agreed with it. Later, he went up to Frank and told him: "I voted against your amendment because I disapprove of you," Frank recalls in a version Coburn confirms. "But I was wrong, and I'm not going to do it again." ("I wasn't enormously cheered by his conversion," Frank reports.)

In a book talk last year at the Heritage Foundation, Coburn named Frank as one of the congressmen he most admired. "He is a liberal and he is willing to stand up for what he believes," he said. "The problem with our country is people are not willing to stand up for what they believe in; that's the great threat to this country right now."

The subject that truly obsesses Coburn, the one he comes back to over and over, is not homosexuality or abortion, but fiscal responsibility -- spending, the deficit, entitlements. To Coburn, fiscal issues are moral ones. "It is evil to spend your kids' money, spend away their future," he says about the ballooning deficit. "It is good to be frugal. This is good and evil, black and white. Stealing from your kids is wrong. I don't care who you are."

In his book, Coburn reserves his greatest contempt for Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), then chairman of the House Transportation Committee and a "grandmaster of pork." During his last year in Congress, Coburn nearly shut down the House by threatening to attach 130 amendments to an agriculture appropriations bill he thought was too larded up.

The headlines called the budget passed by Congress last month the stingiest in years on domestic spending. But Coburn views it as business as usual, stuffed with pet projects. "Everyone's tickled," he says. "But they just added 2,000 bucks to everyone's debt, not including Social Security. We're proud of that? We ought to be disgusted."

For the moment, however, Coburn's determined to hold his tongue and return to Washington humbly. He's seen Gingrich since the coup and "it went okay," he says. He now has a "good relationship with Trent Lott." During an orientation dinner he had a "wonderful time" with Democratic Sen.-elect Barack Obama (Ill.) and his wife. "He's going to be somebody I can work with," he says. "I'm just cautious," he says, during an interview in his medical office in Oklahoma. "I have a reputation in Washington that's not necessarily accurate and I don't want to inflame that anymore before people get to know me and know my heart."

But already there are irritations -- he looked for a townhouse, but nothing seemed to cost less than $800,000. The staff of the Ethics Committee has already hand-delivered to him a letter saying he can't practice medicine while serving in the Senate. His own staff expects a showdown. But no matter, Coburn has bills to introduce, a country to save. "My goal in the Senate is I need to get done what I need to get done. And initially that means no confrontation."


A plaque in his cozy medical office reads, "Make No Small Plans Here." Another reads, "Keep your eyes on Jesus." On the phone is a parliamentary leader from Albania whom Coburn helped with starting a prayer group. A former congressman just left a message. In the front hall, several patients are waiting. It's 9 a.m. and Coburn's already behind. His pager buzzes. He puts on his doctor's coat and he's off.

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