WASHINGTON Since 2004, alliance has transcended political differences
Some Oklahomans who saw Sen. Tom Coburn hug President Barack Obama after the president’s recent speech to Congress were probably perplexed. Some weren’t too happy about it.
"We had about 50 letters that were highly critical of him hugging me and me hugging him,” Coburn, R-Muskogee, said in an interview last week. "But you need to separate the difference in political philosophy versus friendship. How better to influence somebody than love them?
"I’m not aligned with him politically. I don’t know what people back home in Oklahoma would be worried about. I think I’m — if not the most conservative senator, I’m one of the most conservative senators.”
For some, the hugging scene on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives may have been the first hint that the two men — who wouldn’t seem to have much in common — even have a relationship. Coburn himself would admit that there are plenty of people in Washington who wouldn’t hug him — and that would be more than fine with him.
A valuable friendship
But Coburn clearly likes Obama, and the friendship is valuable to him, even as he opposes much of Obama’s agenda on the floor of the Senate and votes against some of his Cabinet nominees.
He said he has talked to Obama about half a dozen times since the president’s inauguration in January, though he wouldn’t give any hints about what prompted the calls.
"I can’t tell you without telling what we talk about,” he said. "I can’t go there and then keep my confidence with him.
"We’re very good friends. We’re totally different, but we respect each other immensely, and we have a personal relationship that’s outside our politics. Who else does he have on my (Republican) side that he has a relationship with?
Obama and Coburn became fast friends in late 2004, just after the two had won their Senate seats and attended orientation sessions in Washington.
"He and I just really hit it off,” Coburn said.
Coburn told reporters in 2004 that he had "a wonderful time” with Obama during the orientation.
"I think I can work with him,” he said then.
And the two did work together, cosponsoring bills to ensure strict oversight of government aid for Hurricane Katrina victims and to require all government grants and contracts to be posted on the Internet in a database.
While running for the presidency, Obama mentioned Coburn’s name in campaign speeches and in debates.
"I would also seek out people like Tom Coburn, who is probably the most conservative member of the U.S. Senate,” Obama said at a campaign event in 2007. "He has become a friend of mine.”
Despite their friendship, Coburn campaigned vigorously for Republican Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, for president, endorsing him at a time when conservatives were skeptical about McCain’s commitment to their issues.
In the midst of the financial system meltdown in October, Coburn called both men to urge them to leave the campaign trail and engage in talks on the massive bank bailout package.
"It’s easy to demonize anybody,” Coburn said.
‘An honest liberal’
"I’m adamantly against 80 percent of President Obama’s policies. But he is an honest liberal. He said he was going to nationalize health care, he said he was going to do all these things. And he’s doing it. He won the election.
"Am I to hate him because he has a different viewpoint than I do? Or should I love him and try to touch his heart and change him?”
Coburn, a physician, wasn’t among the lawmakers invited to the White House last week for a "summit” on health care reform, despite the fact that Coburn has authored comprehensive legislation to overhaul the system.
"The best thing Washington could write about would be me and Obama having a spat,” Coburn said. "He’s pretty protective of me, and I’m protective of him in terms of our relationship.
"But on the (Senate) floor — that’s a totally different matter,” he said.