Brian Birdnow

At a town hall meeting last week Tom Coburn, the junior Republican senator from the great state of Oklahoma found himself in an unexpected sparring session with a concerned voter. The woman in question had expressed fear about ending up in jail if she did not purchase health insurance. Coburn called her out on this supposed misstatement, corrected her, and took a couple of gratuitous shots at Fox News. He also assured his audience that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is, “…a nice lady.” His remark generated grumbling among the audience, but Coburn stuck to his guns and repeated, “…Come on now. She is nice-how many of you have met her? She is a nice person.” What are we now to make of Senator Coburn? Perhaps he really wants to restore a sense of collegiality to official Washington. Maybe he is angling for a “Strange New Respect” award from Tom Bethell and The American Spectator. Perhaps he is simply seeking favorable coverage in the prestige media. If that is the case it might be working as Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus gave him a glowing review in an OP-Ed piece last week. Possibly Coburn has other reasons, or no reasons, for his statement. Regardless of motives, the GOP Senator has lauded a person who slandered the Republican Party in 2006 (culture of corruption, anyone), who regularly lambasted President Bush, and has effectively marginalized the Republicans since 2008, even to the point of shutting them out of the health care proceedings, yet Tom Coburn says she is a nice lady.

Game Change FREE

The likeability factor is now beginning to play a considerable role in national politics. Think back to the primary election season in 2008. Candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton lobbed brickbats at each other over who was and wasn’t likeable, with Obama commenting caustically in one debate, “I think you’re likeable enough, Hillary.” What would Tom Coburn say about that? Would he insist that Hillary Clinton, widely seen as icy cold and calculating, is actually a nice lady?

Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.