Tom Coburn, Nancy Pelosi, And The Likeability Factor

Brian Birdnow

4/19/2010 12:00:00 AM - 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.

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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?

If the presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee can apply the likeability test to his top challenger surely Tom Coburn can invoke Senatorial courtesy and subject the President to the same test. Would he find President Obama petulant and thin-skinned? Some of Obama’s media sycophants describe him as “professorial”, or a latter day Woodrow Wilson. It is worth noting that King George V of Britain described Wilson as “An entirely cold academical professor-an odious man.” Obama might be characterized as professorial, or he might be rightly described as aloof and lacking in human warmth. Tom Coburn, though, would probably say that Obama is a nice fellow.

It might be interesting, simply for the sake of fun, to apply the likeability test to other current or recent office holders. While we should not speak ill of the deceased, would Tom Coburn have approved of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy? Has anyone forgotten Teddy heaping abuse on Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987 and informing Mrs. Bork at a cocktail reception that the abuse was, “…just politics, nothing personal.” Senator Coburn would be hard-pressed to slough that one off. What about current Presidential chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel? Mr. Emanuel is a veteran Chicago political brawler of the take-no-prisoners variety. He once sent a dead fish (a gangland symbol of impending murder) to a political rival. Would Senator Coburn insist that “Rahmbo” is a nice guy? Finally, we can consider Congressman Henry Waxman of California, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Waxman, a known bully and defamer of Republican opponents, has decided to subpoena the CEO’s of companies who have publicly claimed that the health care will slap them with heavy new financial obligations. Waxman is simply planning Stalinist show-trials for corporate executives who question official state sanctioned propaganda. Does Congressman Waxman pass the Tom Coburn likeability test?

Obviously this column is somewhat facetious and waggish. Yet, there is a serious purpose here as well. When reflecting on the political history of the USA in the twentieth century one finds truly likeable American Presidents such as Taft, Harding, Coolidge, Truman, Ford and, of course, Ronald Reagan. With the sole exception of Harding these men generally acquitted themselves well in the office of the Presidency. Reasonable people can quibble about the merits of the previous list, but the historical consensus is that most of those on the list deserve a good historical rating. So, nice guys don’t always finish last! Conversely, largely dislikeable people like Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter have won election to the Presidency during the last century. Each of these men finished their terms discredited and unpopular, with one clearly defeated and one disgraced. Imposing a “likeability” test on these men might have saved the country some travails and sorrows.

So, we don’t know precisely what Tom Coburn was thinking and why he chose to pick a fight at his town hall meeting. Given his recent grilling on Fox News by Bill O’Reilly, Coburn is probably gnashing his teeth over the entire issue. Coburn should remember in the future that complete honesty is the best policy and that people who will slander, defame, and libel their colleagues, threaten to call down the law on them, impugn their motives and character, and then dismiss it all as “just politics” may not be such really nice people after all.