Oklahomans seem to relish Coburn's blunt-spoken, take-me-or-leave-me style. Three years ago, for example, he blocked a Senate resolution that would have honored environmentalist and author Rachel Carson on the 100th anniversary of her birth. Coburn asserted that Carson -- whose 1962 book, Silent Spring, is widely regarded as the catalyst for banning DDT -- relied on "junk science" to stigmatize potentially lifesaving pesticides.
In Coburn's quasi-religious town hall meeting in Skiatook -- a Tulsa exurb in the heart of what's still called Osage country, even though formal tribal boundaries were obliterated generations ago -- people in the audience respond to his commentary as if they're attending a tent revival, frequently offering up "amens" as encouragement.
"We have abandoned the very culture and character traits of our founders," Coburn says, warning that Congress and the courts routinely ignore the founders' "rule book" -- the U.S. Constitution, a copy of which he says he carries with him at all times and re-reads frequently. "Our founders thought we should have as much freedom as we could have and have a limited federal government. ... When you read through this book, 80 percent of what it says is what the government can't do. It doesn't say what the government can do -- it says what the government can't do.
"And that's not to say the government doesn't have a legitimate role ... in the areas our founders gave us responsibility for. But we've so expanded, so gone beyond what was the original intent of the federal government that we find ourselves spending $4.1 billion a day that we don't have, that we're charging to our kids and our grandkids. And that's not any heritage I want to embrace. I want to embrace the heritage before that, where we worked hard and sacrificed to create an opportunity for the generation that followed us rather than steal from the generations that followed us."
One man in the audience asks why Republicans deserve another chance to run the nation, after they racked up massive federal debt when they controlled Congress and George W. Bush was president. But he's an outlier; everyone else seems to embrace the notion that "they" -- liberals, radical environmentalists, socialists and so on -- are deliberately leading the nation to destruction and "we" must do whatever it takes to get "our" country back.
Indeed, some of the questions raised during the town hall meeting clearly spring from Fox News and the anti-Obama chain e-mails speeding through cyberspace. One man wants to know if it's true that the president is using taxpayer dollars to relocate thousands of Palestinians to Michigan or Minnesota -- he wasn't sure where -- and provide them housing.
"I can't answer that," Coburn replies.
Another wants to know if Obama really could bypass the Senate and grant amnesty to illegal immigrants. "It depends on the degree and the definition -- I read some very disturbing things inside Homeland Security last week in terms of not enforcing when they have an opportunity to enforce it," Coburn says without elaboration. "But I don't know if those are rumor or fact and my staff is working to find out if that's a fact."
Critics say that Coburn could elevate the national dialogue by addressing such rumors directly and setting the record straight, but he rarely does. He portrays himself as an open-minded thinker, a daily reader of both the conservative Wall Street Journal and the liberal New York Times editorial pages, opining that neither side has a lock on wisdom and truth. But he also makes many claims that he doesn't back up with facts. He insists he could cut $600 billion from the federal budget tomorrow and nobody would miss it, yet offers no specifics.
"There's very little common sense in Washington," he says. "Think about the number of people in Congress that's never had a job except serving in a public elected position. ... (They) do what's in the best long-term interest of (their) political career. ... Washington's out of control, the bureaucracies are out of control in many areas and we don't have the appropriate oversight or hard work to get them under control."
Like Inhofe, Coburn takes stands on environmental issues that reflect Oklahoma's agrarian tradition -- a belief that God provided natural resources for human use and that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to limit or regulate those uses. Coburn conveys the sentiment with perfect pitch, linking drilling to energy independence, national security and individual liberty.
"It comes back to a lot of false claims of climate change," he says, deriding the term. "You notice that they don't call it global warming anymore because they can't back that up with the science. There's no question this country can be energy independent. We've got 7,000 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas (deposits) -- seven thousand. That's enough to run our country for 100 years. And that's domestic. That's not Alaska. And that's not offshore.
"The federal government owns of your land 650 million acres. Less than 8 percent of it is available for exploration for oil and less than 10 percent is available for exploration of natural gas. (And in) that portion that is available, the permitting process through the Department of Interior is so expensive and so fraught with lawsuits by the hard environmentalists that it is not cost-effective to drill."
Coburn speaks with such certainty that there's a joke making the rounds in Oklahoma: What's the difference between God and Tom Coburn? God never thought he was Tom Coburn. But what Coburn says clearly resonates in Oklahoma -- and it seems to be catching on more and more around the nation. As he likes to say, "America has to wake up."
Arnold Hamilton is a third-generation Oklahoman and editor of The Oklahoma Observer, a twice-monthly journal of news and commentary founded more than 40 years ago, dedicated to the motto: To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
These stories were funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.
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