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Coburn Addresses Leadership, Gaza, Ebola, Marijuana At Final Oklahoma City Town Hall

Roman Burleson
U.S. Senate
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) speaks to the crowd during the August 4 town hall at Oklahoma City Community College.

Listen To The Broadcast Version Of The Town Hall

In January, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) surprised political observers and constituents when he announced he would step down with two years left on his second term.

The state’s junior Republican – who’s also a practicing physician – has earned the nickname “Dr. No” for being one of the chamber’s most ardent budget and debt hawks.

Coburn will return to private life at the end of the current session before the first of the year, and throughout August he’s holding his final series of town hall meetings across Oklahoma.

Here are some highlights from the 90-minute conversation on August 4 in a packed house at Oklahoma City Community College.

On what influence the United States can have to end the current situation between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza

The only thing I know is you have to love people, even people who disagree with you. But leadership matters, and I think that's part of the question. What can we do to lead on that? We can't say we have a policy and then not live with it. So we need very clear and distinct policies.

We have the power to actually do a lot of things in the world, but we're so war-weary that we're now entrenched as a country, and the world is much worse off because of it. And it's not just in the Middle East. It's in Crimea, Ukraine. It's in Afghanistan, and Syria, and Libya, and Tunisia. It's all those areas where we had hopes for the Arab Spring, and yet we didn't lead.

I think Israel made a mistake in responding so quickly to what was happening. I think they did exactly what Hamas wanted them to do, because Hamas had gone down to about 15 percent of support in Gaza. And I haven't kept up with the news today. I don't know where we are. But I think restraint, strong diplomatic quietness in terms of how we're urging. I actually believe in the state of Israel. I believe they have the right to exist. Hamas does not. Their statement is, “They [Israel] need to be eliminated. They need to be destroyed. They do not have the right to exist as a nation.”

We're not going to solve this here, but it's heart-wrenching what's happening. It's heart-wrenching for even the military officer that says, "Strike." And people are killed. War is terrible. It's not any better in this instance, no matter which side you're on. It's terrible.

And I don't blame our administration because of what's going on in Gaza and between the Palestinians and Israel. That's been going on for a long time, as I read my bible. The question is, there's a way you do that, and that's loving people. My dad loved me a lot, but he whooped me a lot, too. And I think a little bit of that needs to go along with it. So I don't have an answer for you other than I'm so sorry it's happening.

On the immigration crisis that's led to thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States from Central America

Senator [John] McCain, I heard him speak at our policy lunch this week, believes we ought to modify the 2008 law on trafficking, which created this mess. The other thing was an executive order that sent a signal.

Just so you all will know, the El Paso Intelligence Center interviewed, with the border patrol, the first 250 children who came here - "teenagers" - about why they were coming. Not one of them was coming because of poverty. Not one of them was coming because they feared for their life. They all came because they'd heard that if you get across the border, you can stay. That's the intelligence on it.

So you can read a whole lot of stuff in the press, but if you read the El Paso - which, the border patrol, I give Jay Johnson credit, he's a great manager of Homeland Security. But it's so big, he doesn't know everything that's going on. But he's going to get that agency in shape.

What we need to do is fix the real problems. And the problem is we're sending a signal, "Come here, you won't have to go home." We need to change that signal. And sending thousands home already, of women with their children, is sending that signal, and that's one of the reasons things are slowing down.

On the Ebola outbreak in West Africa

I'm not concerned at all. This Ebola virus, under our health care system, where we have infection control and good technique and good processes, I'm not worried. I would actually not have any trouble treating an Ebola patient.

This Ebola virus, under primitive conditions, has a 60 percent case fatality rate. That means 60 percent of the people who get it die. It's not as virulent as cases we've seen in the past. And with great care in our country, you'd probably see five to seven percent.

But I'm not worried about a mass epidemic in our country, because I think we have the techniques and public health officials. All those people that you never see that are working behind the scenes - will be called into action if we were to see that.

On the legalization of hemp versus the legalization of marijuana

I'm all for it. It's a great production device. It's a great agricultural device. Will some people abuse it? Yes, but the vast majority of the time, that's something that we can compete globally on. 

I also would say, at the same time, I don't believe you incarcerate pot smokers. I think you use drug courts. They're fantastic. Drug courts, and Oklahoma has been pretty good at it, 67 percent of the people who go through a drug court never get back to drugs.

Now if you want to make an impact on somebody's life that's hooked on meth, or hooked on something else, and they started with pot - they all started with pot - is send them to drug courts and don't incarcerate them. I believe in drug treatment. It works.

I don't believe it's a disease that you got hooked on meth. I think it's poor judgment, and then you have a physiological condition. I don't think you're sick. I think you're an addict. And we can change that.


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Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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