OKLAHOMA CITY – Former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn was stubborn as a mule and conservative to his core. But the Oklahoma family doctor, known for railing against federal earmarks, didn't let political differences dictate whom he called friends – even if it didn't sit well with some of his supporters.
Coburn, who died early Saturday at age 72, joined the U.S. Senate the same year as President Barack Obama, and the pair became fast friends despite their contrasting ideologies. In Oklahoma, where Obama failed to carry a single county in his 2008 presidential bid, voters took note.
But the Republican senator shrugged off complaints in 2009, when the state's largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, ran a front-page photograph that showed him hugging Obama after the Democratic president gave a speech to a joint session of Congress.
“I'm not aligned with him politically. I don't know what people back home in Oklahoma would be worried about,” Coburn, who was re-elected the following year, said at the time. “But you need to separate the difference in political philosophy versus friendship. How better to influence somebody than love them?”
Coburn earned a reputation as a conservative political maverick in Congress. He also delivered more than 4,000 babies while an obstetrician and family doctor in Muskogee, where he treated patients for free while in the Senate.
Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford called Coburn “an inspiration to many.”
“He was unwavering in his conservative values, but he had deep and meaningful friendships with people from all political and personal backgrounds,” Lankford said in a statement.
Coburn frequently criticized the growth of the federal deficit and what he said was excessive government spending endorsed by politicians from both political parties.