“I’m not aligned with him politically. ... But you need to separate the difference in political philosophy versus friendship," Coburn once said of his bond with Obama

By Sean Neumann
March 30, 2020 02:12 PM
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Former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who was known for his staunch conservatism and cross-party friendship with former President Barack Obama, died on Saturday. He was 72.

His family confirmed his death to the Associated Press and The Oklahoman.

Coburn died of complications from prostate cancer, according to The Washington Post, citing a former aide.

The Republican left his Senate position in early 2015, before the end of his term, after he was again diagnosed with prostate cancer, for which he underwent surgery in 2011.

He decided to return home to spend time with his family, saying then he was “now convinced that I can best serve my own children and grandchildren by shifting my focus elsewhere.”

In his years as a legislator, Coburn fought to limit the scope of the federal government and strictly opposed abortion access, same-sex marriage and global-warming science.

He decided to enter politics in the 1990s amid the “Republican Revolution” led by former Rep. Newt Gingrich, who championed his “Contract with America” plan that proposed to cut down the size of the federal government.

In Congress, Coburn — a former obstetrician in his days before entering the House of Representatives and, later, the Senate — became known as “Dr. No” for his opposition to federal spending.

“‘Dr. No’ was a force to be reckoned with in the Senate and a powerful advocate for fiscal restraint and liberty,” Sen. Ted Cruz wrote on Twitter on Saturday, mourning Coburn’s death.

“Seventy-two years was far too few for someone this brilliant, this tireless, and this dedicated to serving others,” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell also wrote on social media. “We stand in prayer with his beloved wife Carolyn and the entire Coburn family.”

Coburn continued his obstetrician work during his political career, delivering thousands of babies “at cost,” he said in the face of warnings from the Senate Ethics Committee to stop his private practice while an elected official.

“On my own time, I’m taking care of women who have a need, and I’m going to continue to deliver babies,” Coburn told Politico then. “I’m not going to stop.”

Former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn hugs former President Barack Obama in 2011

Coburn’s defiance led him to become well-respected across the aisle, waving off critics of who worried about his longtime friendship with President Obama.

Obama and Coburn entered the Senate together in 2005. In 2009 their friendship briefly became headline news when the two shared a hug on the Senate floor following an Obama address.

Oklahoma newspapers ran the photo of Coburn hugging Obama on the front page the next day, according to the AP. Afterwards, Coburn defended his friendship.

“I’m not aligned with him politically. I don’t know what people back home in Oklahoma would be worried about,” he said then, according to the AP. “But you need to separate the difference in political philosophy versus friendship. How better to influence somebody than love them?”

Former Sen. Tom Coburn in 2016
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/ Getty

Coburn was re-elected the next year and continued to serve in the Senate until January 2015, when he retired amid his cancer diagnosis — the latest in a series of health issues dating back decades.

He had been given a 20-percent chance to survive a melanoma diagnosis in the 1970s, which he overcame and was inspired by to study medicine, according to thePost. He attended medical school at the University of Oklahoma, graduating in 1983.

In 2003, Coburn was diagnosed with colon cancer before he stepped back from politics following his 2015 pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

He is survived by wife Carolyn and three daughters, according to The Oklahoman.

“As impressive as it was to see Tom work in the Senate, politics never defined him,” McConnell’s Saturday statement read. “Elected office was just one phase of a driven life that had already included growing a family business and delivering thousands of babies as a legendary hometown obstetrician. His deep faith and his endless capacity to the see the good in others made him a beloved friend to so many.”