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When people are oppressed by their government, it is a natural right they enjoy to relieve themselves of the oppression. -U.S. Grant
One summer morning in June of 1994, I woke up with the sudden realization I should run for Congress. This might not have been a startling revelation for someone who ran in political circles. But for me, a family physician in Muskogee, Oklahoma, it seemed ludicrous.
During the first half of 1994, I was like millions of Americans who were growing increasingly frustrated with Washington. I was growing weary of an elitist Congress that was out of touch with ordinary Americans, and, as a doctor, I was horrified by President Clinton's attempt to socialize medicine. I knew I would vote for change in the next election, but running for Congress myself was the furthest thing from my mind.
At that time my medical practice was thriving, and my wife, Carolyn, and I were about to enter a new season in our lives. Sarah, the youngest of my three daughters, was heading into her senior year in high school and would soon be heading off to college. My middle daughter, Katie, was already studying at Oklahoma State University. And my oldest daughter, Callie, had recently moved back to Muskogee with her new husband, Jeff, after graduating from the University of Oklahoma. If I harbored any secret ambition at the time, it was to be a grandfather.
My only political experience before 1994 was volunteering for Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign. One of my classmates who had also worked on that campaign happened to be Mike Synar who, in 1994, was an eight-term liberal Democrat congressman representing me in Washington.
My true background was in business. After graduating from Oklahoma State University in 1970 with a degree in accounting, I went to work for my dad, O. W., as manager of Coburn Optical Products in Virginia. At the young age of twenty-two, I was responsible for thirteen employees in a company that was producing ophthalmic lenses. Even though I knew there were smarter people in the business who had more sophisticated marketing plans, I wasn't going to let anyone outwork me. My business plan, built on little more than tenacity, paid off. By 1978, we had 350 employees and had captured 35 percent of the U.S. market.
My experience in business played an important role in shaping my political views. Since I started working in 1970, I could feel the government gripping me a little tighter year after year with new regulations and higher taxes. As my freedom to run my operation on my terms began slipping away, I grew increasingly resentful of the federal government's intrusion into my business. I'll never forget an incident in 1976 when an FDA inspector walked into my company and said I couldn't be licensed to operate a new expansion of our business until I moved a bathroom wall eight inches to comply with federal regulations. I could tell the inspector wasn't simply doing his job but was also enjoying the power and leverage he had over me. You would imagine a reasonable person in this situation saying, "Gosh, I know this is a bit ridiculous, but I've got to ask you to move this wall." Instead, the inspector treated me like a criminal when I let him know how ludicrous, unnecessary, and costly this request was. "You don't understand," he insisted. "You can move this wall, or you can wait forever to get your permit."
Not long after this, my career took a radically different turn when I decided to move back to Oklahoma with my wife and three children and enroll in medical school. As a thirty-one-year-old first year student at the University of Oklahoma, I earned the nickname "Gramps" from my classmates. My decision to go to medical school was motivated by a desire to move on from my business experience and get back to Oklahoma, but it was also influenced by an event that occurred a few years earlier.
When I came home for Christmas in 1975, my mother, Joy, noticed that a birthmark behind my left ear had changed. She said what she wanted for Christmas that year was for me to have that checked. I wasn't worried, but, wanting to grant my mom her Christmas wish, I went to the doctor. The doctor took a small biopsy sample but wasn't particularly concerned. However, a couple of days later, he called me and said I needed to come back to his office. The doctor told me I had cancer, but he needed to do more tests to see how far it had spread.
Next I went to a specialist who, after running a series of tests, dropped a bomb on me that has forever altered my life. He said, "Tom, you have a malignant melanoma, a form of skin cancer. Unfortunately, the survival rate for this depth of invasion isn't very high. I'd say you have about a 20 percent chance of surviving beyond one year."
When I left the office, I drove around aimlessly. I wasn't scared because I've always had a deep faith and trust in God. I believe that we can influence some things in our lives to a degree, but I also believe there is an ultimate plan over which we have no control. Still, I was angry at the situation. I wondered if I would be able to see my young girls grow up, and I worried about how they would be taken care of without me. I also wanted to know if I could grow old with my wife and wondered whether I would be able to continue managing a thriving company.
By the time I pulled the car into the driveway, my perspective on life had changed. Facing death helped me put my priorities in perspective in a hurry. I had always known what was important in life before that, but I hadn't acted like it. My relationships became more important. My desire to help others grew. My drive to make my company flourish intensified.
I had one minor operation and then had to return to the hospital for major surgery after the doctors realized the tumor had invaded deeper than they had expected. The surgeon performed a procedure called a radical dissection on the left side of my neck, removing a large section of flesh and leaving a scar that is quite noticeable to this day. Although they believed they had removed all of the cancer, the operation couldn't be declared a success for another five years, which meant five years of waiting to know whether I would live through my early thirties.
The culmination of my battle with cancer came in 1992 at my daughter Callie's wedding. My sister, Mary, came up to me and said, "Well, you made it. You lived to see your daughter married." Every special event since then-the wedding of my daughter Katie and the births of my three grandchildren-has been even sweeter knowing what a privilege it is that I am still on this earth to enjoy those blessings.
Needless to say, my bout with cancer gave me an ability to empathize with people struggling with illness and disease. My career as a doctor is extremely fulfilling. As a family practice physician specializing in obstetrics, I am blessed to participate in one of the most joyous events in life-bringing a new person into the world.
Still, however much I enjoyed my new career, I could not escape the reach of big government. I had to hire extra assistants simply to comply with the torrent of paperwork generated by government agencies and insurance companies. Trying to keep bureaucrats from stepping between my patients and me became a constant battle, which, unfortunately, is even worse now than it was in 1994.
Also, while specializing in obstetrics allowed me to participate in life's great joys, it also opened my eyes to some of life's greatest tragedies, such as sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancies, and the problems associated with abortion. Witnessing these tragedies inspired me to become active in my community by speaking to students-and anyone who would listen-about the risks of STDs and the benefits of abstinence outside of marriage. Still, the thought never occurred to me that I would be a more effective spokesman for these issues in Washington, D.C. than I was in Oklahoma.
My life took yet another drastic turn one day in June of 1994 when I read in the Muskogee Phoenix a comment from my congressman, sixteen-year incumbent Mike Synar, about nationalizing health care. Synar tended to take positions that were a 180-degree departure from the values of the people in the district. I said to myself, "Somebody has got to run against this guy." It was a few days after reading his comment that I woke up realizing I should be the person to challenge Synar.
Synar, a very intelligent young man, was a liberal in a district that was conservative on social issues even though it was overwhelmingly Democratic by voter registration. Synar's major problem, however, was not that he was perceived as too liberal but that people thought he had completely lost touch with the district. Synar and his liberal colleagues in Congress liked to characterize his departure from the values of his district as admirable independence, but ordinary folks back home were concerned it was growing indifference and a capitulation to the ruling elite in Washington.
I tried to explain my road-to-Damascus experience to Carolyn the morning I awoke with my new purpose. She was not impressed.
"Tommy, no. Absolutely not," Carolyn said. I could tell by the look she gave me that she wondered if I was sleep deprived from delivering a baby during the night. Carolyn reminded me of what I already knew about myself. "You wouldn't fit into that arena," she said. "You don't have the right personality for politics." Carolyn knew better than anyone that I don't have a coy bone in my body. I was too direct and too bullheaded to succeed in the "go along to get along" world of politics.
I took Carolyn's perspective very seriously. The greatest gift and blessing I have ever had in this life has been my good fortune to be married to, cared for, loved by, and held accountable by Carolyn. Through my many careers and through life-threatening illness, she has always been by my side. She has been the keynote of my life.
We discussed the topic several times, but running for Congress still did not seem to be something she looked forward to with any eagerness. "Besides, everyone knows," Carolyn reminded me, "Mike Synar can't be beaten."
The next month, I sent a letter to my daughter Katie at the camp where she was working that summer to tell her that I was heading to Washington to investigate the possibility of running for Congress. "I thought it was the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life," Katie later recalled. "You just don't imagine your dad who has been a doctor your whole life suddenly running for Congress when this has never even been discussed before."
A few nights later, I floated the idea to a group of friends we had over for dinner. I'll never forget the blank stares and the silence, which was broken by the question, "Are you nuts?"
Later, Carolyn asked pointedly, "Why would you do something like that? You have a great practice. You are doing what you love. Why would you do something so counter to what you are? You don't want to be in that arena, do you?"
When I ran the idea by Fred Reufer, an orthopedic surgeon at the hospital, I got yet another blank stare as he said, "No Republican could win. Not you or anybody."
They were right, of course. I had no political background, no political sense, and no knowledge of how to get actively involved. I cared deeply about issues and was a registered Republican, but only because I couldn't stand how big government interfered with my business. I was pro-life, but I wasn't active in pro-life causes other than doing medical pro bono work for women in crisis situations and providing financial support to a counseling clinic for unplanned pregnancies. Yet if there was one reason for not running it was Carolyn's observation: Politics just wasn't my style.
Still, I had an overwhelming feeling that if those of us on the outside didn't make an attempt to change things they would never change. I had a deep sense that things were not right in our country. I saw Washington as a city dominated by self-serving career politicians who were more concerned with protecting their positions than responding to the needs of the country. After being controlled by the Democratic party for forty years, the Congress was now, more than ever, an island unto itself-and to folks in northeast Oklahoma, Congress seemed like a resort island unto itself.
In 1994, I was also watching our culture decline from the vantage point of my medical practice. I saw firsthand the devastating consequences of the trend in our society to avoid responsibility and eliminate the consequences of any questionable behavior. Every week, teenagers would come into my practice with a host of sexually transmitted diseases and, in some cases, pregnancies. I was also witnessing the development of a massive HIV/AIDS epidemic that the government was almost covering up for fear of offending the politically correct free-sex and homosexual communities. The disease was newly infecting more than forty thousand Americans every year primarily because no one in government had the courage to implement common sense prevention measures the homosexual community had incorrectly labeled "anti-gay." I believe history will condemn our government for its lack of courage. Despite a few positive steps, I still believe we have an ineffective HIV prevention policy.
I saw troubling trends on other fronts. I saw a welfare system that increased the number of fatherless children by rewarding women for having children out of wedlock. I saw an education system that graduated students based on how much time they spent in school, not on whether they had learned basic skills with which to survive. I saw a judicial system that was casting aside the wisdom of our founders to fit the political whims of judges. I saw a criminal justice system that no longer administered justice but used behind-the-scenes maneuvering to ensure that public humiliation was not part of the process necessary to change a person's criminal behavior.
But what bothered me most was cowardice in public servants and elected officials who placed their political careers ahead of the best interests of the next generation. I understood that it had been this way for years, but the questions I asked myself were: Does it have to continue? Why shouldn't I do something about it if I feel so strongly about these problems? And could a bullheaded doctor from Muskogee with no political sense, but with some business and common sense, make a difference in Washington? If the form of government our founders created was still intact, I believed I could.
Despite the counsel of those I loved and respected, I decided to run. I told my hometown paper, "I don't believe in career politics and think the evidence of the representation we have now shows that career politics is not good for the state or the district. I'm tired of telling people we need to do something without doing something myself."
When I announced my candidacy in front of eighty supporters, I said my candidacy "pits the conservative people of the second district against a liberal Washington-based political elite represented by Mike Synar." I said I was concerned about the "professional political elite" in Washington and the impact they were having on the country. I noted that Oklahomans had already voted to limit the terms of state legislators and supported term limits at the federal level.
"Unfortunately, career politicians like Mike Synar do not share this vision [of term limits]," I told the crowd. "Our founding fathers never envisioned a situation in which people would make a career of elective politics. They viewed public office as a temporary sacrifice.... More and more we are represented in Congress by politicians who do not live in our communities, who do not share our values, who do not understand our problems, and who do not respond to our needs and wishes. They are a privileged political elite who justify their existence by spending our money, raising our taxes, and regulating our lives. They vote themselves huge salaries, hire large staffs who spend much of their time engaged in activities designed to re-elect their employers, and send us thinly disguised campaign mail at our own expense to convince us of our need to retain them in office."
In response to my announcement, Synar said he was "adamantly opposed" to term limits because they would damage the political clout of small states like Oklahoma and increase voter apathy. "This is just another gimmick by the Republicans who cannot win at the ballot box," Synar told the Muskogee Phoenix.
Excerpted from BREACH OF TRUST by TOM A. COBURN JOHN HART Copyright © 2007 by Tom A. Coburn, M.D. with John Hart. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted November 29, 2004
Breach of Trust is a terrific book that discusses Tom Coburn's expierience in Congress and sheds light on how politicians really act behind closed doors. Coburn advocates term limits for members of Congress and exposes how they spend huge sums of money and get away with it. This book will make you want to throw just about every member of Congress out of office. Coburn often repeats himself throughout the book, but overall it's a worthwhile read. I can't wait to see what Coburn does in Senate in the upcoming session!
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 6, 2010
I very enjoyed reading Sen Coburn's thoughts about the role of government, why federal spending has increased so much, and how politicians are tempted to change over several terms of office. I thought his personal insights into how the 1994 Contract with America and the success of that election got derailed were very interesting.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 31, 2005
After reading this book, I became more upset at the way politicians act behind closed doors, and have no sense of spending limits or value for anything. Dr. Tom Coburn describes his six years in Congress and how both sides play the pork game, no term limitation, and just don't believe in anything but remaining in their elected positions. It's a must read, it WILL open your eyes as to what really happens behind closed doors in D.C., and not in front of the cameras!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 17, 2005
I don't consider myself to be a naive person, but this book was very eye opening! I follow politics very closely and this book shocked me. It is very fair in its criticism of both the left and the right. The book is not only about the negative. Dr. Coburn also offers ideas on the future of Social Security, term limits, and many other topics. The budget details can get a little in depth, but overall its a great book!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 30, 2004
Leaving aside the reader's personal opinion of Coburn's politics, this book confirms the jaded view many have of Congress, where the best intentions go to die in a frenzy of pork-barrel spending, self-important posturing, and hobnobbing with lobbyists. Let's hope Coburn's recent election to the Senate brings as much focus on that corrupt chamber as this book does to the House.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 15, 2004
Dr. Coburn provides an in-depth look at how the Congress works; and, as importantly, offers specific recommendations as to how the system can be revitalized to reflect the founding fathers' original plan for providing government by and for the people, run by citizen representatives rather than career politicians. Great work, Dr. Coburn!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 10, 2004
If it were up to Bob Novak and his associates everything progressive that this country has done would be repealled this book is choc full of bias for the right wing.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 16, 2004