Monday, December 13, 2004

Doctor's Order: "Tom Coburn has been here before, he can do this. During the four-day orientation for new senators, he can play the good student, sit through lectures by his soon-to-be colleagues on what they think is important, Washington words like 'bipartisanship' and 'ethics rules,' be instructed like a third-grader on how to make friends with the other team.

"When the 'Marvelous Seven' new Republican senators are introduced to the media, reporters ignore the others and swarm around Coburn like bees to soda pop, waiting for him to fizz. But he is prepared. Dr. Coburn, what about partial birth abortion? they ask the senator-elect from Oklahoma. Dr. Coburn, what about gay marriage? What about values, Dr. Coburn?

"But he resists unleashing one of his prophetic warnings from the campaign about 'rampant lesbianism' or abortion doctors getting the death penalty or the venality of your average Washington politician. Instead, he says he'll be cautious, observant, collegial: 'I promise you I'll be sleeping every night with that rule book,' he says, meaning 'Riddick's Senate Procedure,' a 1,500-page manual.

"'Dr. Coburn, how long do you think you can keep that up?' one exasperated reporter finally asks.

"The answer is, about as long as it takes to get back to Muskogee, back to his homey closet of a doctor's office, to his reclining mahogany chair, to his mug of tea and pictures of his grandchildren and framed fragments of Scripture and all the quiet comforts that let him hear his own voice again.

"The rules they learned in the orientation session on ethics? 'Ridiculous,' he says. 'Crazy.' He can fly his wife home from Washington with frequent-flier miles, but not to Washington. He can dine with a lobbyist, but only once. 'Just think about it,' he says. 'I'm 56 years of age. I've had three jobs, raised three kids. If somebody can buy my vote for a dinner, I shouldn't be here in the first place.

"'I'm just going to ignore all that and do what I think is ethically right and aboveboard. And I suspect that's what everyone else does, too.'

"Ahhh. Tom Coburn is really back. You can hear the collective sigh of relief from those political junkies who have been secretly dreading four more years of the same dull party discipline.

"On election night, while most of us hung on Ohio, Joe Scarborough watched as Coburn's lead against Democrat Brad Carson grew by one point, then five, then 12. Suddenly, the former congressman, now host of his own MSNBC show, felt that old thrill run through him.

"'Good God,' he recalls thinking. 'May God help the leadership of the Republican Senate. I just can't imagine. I can't imagine how much fun it's going to be to watch Tom Coburn go after his own.'"

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