The Many Faces of Dr. Coburn

The Many Faces of Dr. Coburn

He’s a far-right baby doctor. His own chief of staff says he’s clueless about the law. Meet Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who’ll help shape the US Supreme Court.


On the first day of hearings on Judge John G. Roberts Jr.’s nomination to Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, before a Russell Senate Office Building Caucus Room overflowing with members of the media and Congressional staffers, with klieg lights shining and flashbulbs popping all around, and with seventeen other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee arrayed beside him, Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn busied himself with a crossword puzzle.

On April 7, five months prior to this hearing, Michael Schwartz, Coburn’s chief of staff, told me, “Tom doesn’t know anything about this judiciary stuff, so I’m feeding him piles and piles of memos every day.” Though Schwartz didn’t specify the nature of his memos to Coburn, I assumed they were made up of primers on legal jargon and history, not word games, puzzles or other such brainteasers.

I met Schwartz outside a downtown Washington hotel, where a gathering of Christian-right activists called “Confronting the Judicial War on Faith” was taking place. In a speech earlier that day, Schwartz told conference attendees he favored “the mass impeachment of judges” and denounced the Supreme Court for giving Americans “the right to commit buggery.” Later, while a think tank researcher and I accompanied him to the Dupont Circle subway station, coincidentally located in the heart of one of America’s most vibrant gay neighborhoods, Schwartz held forth with his vision for the judiciary.

At the very beginning of our conversation, before I could even introduce myself, Schwartz exclaimed, “I’m a radical! I’m a real extremist. I don’t want to impeach judges. I want to impale them!”

Schwartz struck a slightly more even-tempered tone when discussing Senator Arlen Specter, a socially moderate Republican who had become the bete noire of the Christian right since assuming the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. “Specter is the Great Satan, of course,” Schwartz remarked. “But still, I’d rather have him as committee chair than [Utah Republican Senator] Orrin Hatch, because Specter knows how to terrorize the opposition.”

Schwartz expressed dismay over a former colleague, Tom Jipping, who has become one of the Christian right’s point men in the judicial nomination battles. “Tom’s great,” he said, recalling their days together at right-wing think tanks the Free Congress Foundation and Concerned Women for America. “But he’s wrong about judges. He just wants better judges,” Schwartz said mockingly.

So what kind of judges did Schwartz want? Borrowing a common right-wing analogy Roberts would later use in his opening remarks before the Judiciary Committee, I asked him if he wanted judges to behave like umpires, ruling on cases like balls and strikes. “I don’t want umpires,” he declared with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I want to get them out of the way.”

Schwartz’s positions may seem extreme, but they are by no means unique in his political milieu. Schwartz earned high praise at the “Confronting the Judicial War on Faith” conference from Catholic-right activist Austin Ruse for being one of the first organizers for Operation Rescue, the antiabortion group that often employed violent tactics in its vain attempt during the 1980s and ’90s to end the practice of abortion. In 1987, while working at the Free Congress Foundation for right-wing master strategist Paul Weyrich, Schwartz co-wrote Gays, AIDS, and You, a book alleging that homosexuals were “using the AIDS crisis to pursue [their] political agenda.” With his reputation established, Schwartz was tapped as chief of staff by Coburn, a family practitioner/obstetrician and political neophyte elected to the House in 1994.

Immediately after seizing a majority in the House, the GOP leadership found itself under sustained pressure from Christian-right leader James Dobson to tack harder against abortion and gay rights. In response, Schwartz helped organize the creation of the Values Action Team, an off-the-record caucus bringing together Washington-based Christian-right lobbyists and conservative members of Congress to coordinate legislative strategy. In 2002 Schwartz walked through the revolving door he helped build, becoming Concerned Women for America’s vice president of governmental affairs. Two years later, while managing Coburn’s erratic Senate campaign, rumors swirled that Schwartz was fired for failing to deflect a steady stream of bad press, including revelations that the stridently antiabortion Coburn had forcibly sterilized a female patient. Despite a brief, unexplained break from the campaign, Schwartz moved up to the Senate after Coburn defeated his Democratic opponent, Brad Carson, with the help of Christian-right grassroots muscle and a last-minute, race-baiting ad blitz.

Schwartz may have salvaged his job, but he hasn’t kept in Coburn’s good graces. His comments about “impaling” judges, which I reported for this magazine, and which were subsequently carried by Newsweek and on Oklahoma Public Television, landed him back in the doghouse. According to filmmaker John Buchanan, who told me he interviewed Schwartz in May for a documentary, Schwartz said he was nearly fired by Coburn for his impolitic statements at the “Judicial War on Faith” conference, which he attended without his boss’s permission. “I hurt Senator Coburn by what I did,” Schwartz told Buchanan.

Yet with the sudden arrival of the first confirmation hearings in nineteen years for a new Supreme Court Chief Justice, it appears Schwartz has become indispensable to a Senator known mainly for his lack of political accomplishments and his personal eccentricity. Indeed, during nearly a decade of public life, Coburn has distinguished himself with posturing ranging from the weird (in 1997 he denounced NBC’s showing of Schindler’s List as “an all-time low, with full-frontal nudity”; seven years later, he invoked the specter of “rampant” lesbianism in Oklahoma public high school bathrooms) to the seemingly pointless (at the risk of censure, he has rebuked a Senate Ethics Committee demand to quit practicing medicine). Most recently, Coburn hosted a “Revenge of the STDs” slideshow in the Capitol basement this May depicting “the ravaging effects” of sexually transmitted diseases.

“A free pizza lunch will be served but attendees should be advised that some slides contain graphic images,” Coburn’s press release warned.

Usually, when a senator’s chief of staff speaks in public, he or she does so on behalf of that senator. With Schwartz, however, it’s hard to know what his dissonant dynamic with his boss will produce. Which Tom Coburn will show up at John Roberts’s confirmation hearing and those to follow for the next nominee? Will it be the freshman senator weaned on a steady diet of memos by a veteran right-wing operative who wants to “impale” judges? Or the clueless physician-cum-political hobbyist described by his underling as someone who “doesn’t know anything”?

In his opening statement, Coburn struggled to hold back tears as he exclaimed in a trembling voice, “My heart aches for less divisiveness, less polarization, less finger-pointing, less bitterness, less partisanship.” On this day, at least, the kindly Dr. Coburn was in. But his other self may turn up at any moment.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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