You knew what might be coming when Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma announced in November that he had a recurrence of cancer. He managed for a long time with a triple threat — colon and prostate cancer and a benign brain tumor. He announced Thursday that he will leave at the end of this congressional session to spend the time he has left with his three children and seven grandchildren. It may be one of the only times when a politician says he wants to spend more time with his family and we know it is utterly the truth.
Coburn has always had a gift for honesty. He didn't need consultants to tell him how to be a senator. He had the white hair, all-American accent and a doctor's wisdom of life and death, his vocation before politics. He talked to the president frequently but didn't brag about it. His colleagues — fellow Republicans and Democrats — liked to have him around, even though he could be a thorn in both sides. He was often the first to be asked to join the various bipartisan "Gangs of."
His Washington home was the model for the Amazon.com satire "Alpha House," yet he didn't sign his conservative roommate Sen. Mike Lee's manifesto calling for defunding Obamacare, because he thought it was the wrong way to go. When I asked him who among his colleagues he would drive across the country with, he said Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat with whom he'd formed the gang on immigration. What a buddy movie that would make.
Coburn believed in the citizen-legislators of the Founding Fathers' imagination and was planning to retire at the end of this term because it fit with that philosophy. He'll leave two years shy of that. He served in the House from 1995 to 2001, then won a surprise victory over a highly regarded Democrat to move to the Senate in 2004. He was re-elected in 2010 by a huge margin.
In the Senate, Coburn pushed the sharpened-pencil auditors at the General Accounting Office to find duplication, fraud, waste and abuse in government. This quest wasn't merely a rhetorical weapon; he acted because no one else was really digging and because both sides were on the take. Critics scoffed at the small-bore savings, which seemed to overlook the goodies enjoyed by such Republican allies as investment bankers and oil companies. Still, just because you can't get at everything doesn't mean you don't get at something. You have to start somewhere.
And Coburn was an equal-opportunity destroyer. He called the Pentagon the "Department of Everything" for its duplicative job programs and studies of beef jerky. A month ago, he ferreted out $30 billion in wasteful spending, including eye-popping items such as the Army's $297 million "mega-blimp," or Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, which was intended for Afghanistan but made only one trip: a short flight over New Jersey. Or ludicrous ones such as a $125,000 3-D pizza printer for astronauts.
Reporters don't get to choose the senators they cover, but you can choose whom you ask over to dinner. He was the most ego- free, funny and sensible person you could meet — and not just by the low standards of the current Congress. It helped that he was a country doctor from Muskogee (4,000 babies delivered) and that he preferred to be called Dr. Coburn. He admitted that his mother-in-law, Mamie, liked my political positions better than he did and he asked me to write her a note. When a new senator, Democrat or Republican, arrived in town, Coburn always stopped by for a visit because, he said, Washington is such "a lonely place." Come the end of the month, it will be even more so.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow her on Twitter at @carlsonmargaret.)