Dr. No

How Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn -- and his colleague, Sen. Jim Inhofe -- run roughshod over the West

  • Senator Tom Coburn, R-Okla., at a news conference in August.

    Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images
  • Oil derricks as seen from the Oklahoma State Capitol building, circa 1930s. A working well remains on the Capitol grounds today.

    Research Division Oklahoma Historical Society
  • After a February snowstorm dumped two feet of snow in Washington, D.C., Sen. James Inhofe and his family built an igloo and stuck up signs reading "Honk if you ♥ global warming" and "Al Gore's new home."

    Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty images
  • Oklahoma's congressional delegation earned one of the lowest ratings on the League of Conservation Voters annual environmental scorecard last session, with five of the six Republicans scoring 0.

    League of Conservation voters UC Voters
 

Skiatook, Oklahoma

As religious music plays softly in the background, a mostly white, blue-haired crowd files into the former grocery store that is now a 500-seat auditorium for the First Baptist Church of Skiatook.

The stage is simply decorated: A U.S. flag on one side, a Christian flag on the other. A dark wood pulpit shaped like a cross stands front-and-center, and the back wall features a baptistery adorned with an even larger cross.

In one aisle, a trim, bespectacled, salt-and-pepper-haired man, neatly dressed in coat and tie, greets the congregants, shaking hands, posing for photos and engaging in small talk.

The only clues that this isn't a regular church service appear on the two large, wall-mounted projection screens on each side of the stage. They display a color portrait of the man now working the crowd, with a message in large white-on-blue letters: Welcome to Skiatook! Senator Tom Coburn.

Oklahoma's junior U.S. senator isn't an ordained minister, but he's definitely got a preacher's zest for sermonizing. His anti-Washington, D.C., screeds are filled with a from-God's-mouth-to-my-ear certitude that would make most evangelists envious.

For an hour, the 100 or so Oklahomans assembled here soak in The Gospel According to Coburn, a worldview that blames D.C. careerists -- both elected officials and bureaucrats -- for the nation's ills.

Among the basic tenets of this faith: Medicare is the reason the nation's health-care costs are skyrocketing. Health-care reform will ration care for seniors. Roe v. Wade is the reason that Social Security is financially shaky: It would be rock-solid solvent if not for all those abortions.

Global warming doesn't exist. Nuclear power is key to America's energy independence -- radioactive waste disposal is no problem. Illegal immigration could be solved overnight if the Obama administration quit pandering to liberal special interests and selectively enforcing the law.

And finally, beware of the evil unions, which are spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to trick voters into embracing policies and politicians that undermine the nation's interests.

"What we need," Coburn declares, "is real leadership to talk about what the real problems are. ... But we have politicians that aren't going to make the hard choices because they're afraid they'll offend somebody. I joke with my staff: I decided I'd offend everybody at first and then let them decide whether they're going to trust me. ... I'm going to stand for the principle first every time."

Coburn is often dismissed as a Neanderthal by critics elsewhere in the U.S. But the applause that greets him at this Aug. 30 "town hall" meeting suggests that he is the closest thing to a political messiah that these people have ever seen. Assertive evangelical Christianity and anti-government suspicions run deep in Oklahoma; the U.S. Constitution is invoked here almost as often as the Bible.

Coburn and Oklahoma's other Republican senator, James Inhofe, have become icons of the ascendant hard right by working those themes. You could say that, as Oklahoma goes, so goes the nation, because the political shifts here have spread nationwide and seem likely to grow even stronger after the Nov. 2 elections are over.

But more than that, you could say, as Oklahoma goes, so goes the West. Because the Oklahoma senators often take actions that have a pronounced impact across the Western states, on issues such as federal-land management, energy and other environmental battles, gun rights and immigration.