Since Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada has confessed to an extramarital affair with a female campaign staffer married to one of his top Senate staffers, none of his Republican colleagues have been more supportive of him than his apartment roommate in Washington, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. On June 17, a day after Ensign’s revelation, Coburn pleaded for forgiveness. “If you look at it in the light of everybody makes errors, at least he fessed up and resolved the problem with his family,” Coburn said, “so I think it speaks well of his corrective force.” Coburn also told a crowd of reporters of his 51-year-old roomie, "He is a bright young man. Lots of people make mistakes."
His transformation from anti-sex crusader to adultery enabler has been overnight.
Douglas Hampton, the husband of the woman involved, described a “confrontation” he had with Ensign at the senator’s home in February 2008. “One of the attendee’s [sic] was Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma,” Hampton wrote, “as well as several other men who are close to the senator.” According to Hampton, Coburn has known about Ensign’s affair for 16 months and maintained silence so it would not become public.
The disclosure of Coburn’s role in the scandal not only raises questions about the extent to which he participated in a coverup, but may also prove damaging to his reputation as perhaps the staunchest advocate of conservative sexual mores in Senate history. Coburn is the senator who denounced NBC’s broadcast of Schindler’s List as “an all-time low, with full-frontal nudity.” He has warned of “rampant” lesbianism in Oklahoma public high-school bathrooms. And he has battled to discredit condom use. Elected to the Senate in 2004 after serving eight years in the House of Representatives, Coburn has demonstrated an uncanny ability to transform zealous and occasionally very weird moral crusades into headlines.
“Our culture that too often glorifies promiscuous sex without consequences should not be surprised by this scandal,” Rep. Coburn declared at the height of impeachment proceedings targeting President Bill Clinton for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. “The tragic consequences of the president's behavior should prompt us to reassert the high moral standards that form the foundation of our freedom.”
During his time in the House during the late 1990s, and then as co-chairman of President George W. Bush’s Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS, Coburn (who is an antiabortion obstetrician from Muskogee) spearheaded a campaign to undermine public confidence in condom use. The campaign culminated with a press release he headlined, “ Condoms Do Not Prevent Most STDs." When Coburn ran for the Senate in 2004, he campaigned on a hardcore antiabortion platform, declaring in a debate against his Democratic opponent, Brad Carson, that he favored the death penalty for “abortionists.”
Four months after being sworn into the Senate—he won the cliffhanger election thanks in part to a last-minute race-baiting ad blitz—Coburn hosted an event for young staffers called “Revenge of the STDs.” Theme music from a Star Wars film, The Phantom Menace, blasted as staffers filed into a darkened room in the Senate basement, while Coburn’s aides furnished them with fliers portraying Yoda and C3PO shrieking, “Oh, how dreadful!” Once they were seated, Coburn projected graphic images of diseased, wart-infested genitalia on the wall while describing the ghastly consequences of engaging in sex with multiple partners. According to a press release for the event, staffers were treated to “a free pizza lunch” while they watched Dr. Coburn’s slideshow.
In October 2007, when Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) announced he would finish his term after pleading guilty to soliciting sex with an undercover cop in a bathroom stall, Coburn joined Ensign and a number of other Republican senators in calling for Craig’s immediate resignation. “He ought to keep his word,” Coburn rumbled. Now, with Ensign at the center of an embarrassing sex scandal, Coburn has affected an unusually tolerant tone. His transformation from anti-sex crusader to adultery enabler has been overnight.
Because Coburn apparently knew about Ensign’s involvement with a sex partner other than his wife—and knew in February 2008, six months before Ensign said he broke off the affair—important questions remain about the advice he gave his friend, roommate, and Senate colleague. On June 19, I called John Hart, the ghostwriter of Coburn’s book-length denunciation of congressional corruption and decadence, Breach of Trust, and now Coburn’s press secretary, to ask him to provide his boss a series of questions about what transpired in his private conversations with Ensign. Hart did not answer his office line or cellphone after multiple attempts, so I left the following questions on his voicemail with a request for Coburn’s comments:
--Did Coburn urge Ensign not to use condoms? Did he ask Ensign if he used condoms with Cindy Hampton?
--Did Coburn urge Ensign to get tested for STDs including AIDS?
--Did Coburn show Ensign his Star Wars-themed slideshow on the dangers of having multiple sex partners?
--Coburn called on Larry Craig to quit the Senate. Now he has said about Ensign, “Lots of people make mistakes.” Does Coburn have a double standard? Or should Ensign quit the Senate immediately?
--Will Coburn continue to share a Capitol Hill apartment with Ensign or will Coburn move out?
--Does Coburn trust Ensign not to have sex with multiple partners again?
--Does Coburn believe that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?
Neither Hart nor Coburn have responded. So far, Coburn refuses to disclose to the public what he told Ensign and when he told him—or whether he told him over a pizza lunch.
Max Blumenthal is a senior writer for The Daily Beast and writing fellow at The Nation Institute, whose book, Republican Gomorrah (Basic/Nation Books), is forthcoming this summer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.