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U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, Barack Obama form unlikely friendship

BY CHRIS CASTEEL Published: March 8, 2009
WASHINGTON — Some Oklahomans who saw Sen. Tom Coburn hug President Barack Obama after the president’s recent speech to Congress were probably perplexed. Some weren’t too happy about it.

"We had about 50 letters that were highly critical of him hugging me and me hugging him,” Coburn, R-Muskogee, said in an interview last week. "But you need to separate the difference in political philosophy versus friendship. How better to influence somebody than love them?

"I’m not aligned with him politically. I don’t know what people back home in Oklahoma would be worried about. I think I’m — if not the most conservative senator, I’m one of the most conservative senators.”

For some, the hugging scene on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives may have been the first hint that the two men — who wouldn’t seem to have much in common — even have a relationship. Coburn himself would admit that there are plenty of people in Washington who wouldn’t hug him — and that would be more than fine with him.

A valuable friendship
But Coburn clearly likes Obama, and the friendship is valuable to him, even as he opposes much of Obama’s agenda on the floor of the Senate and votes against some of his Cabinet nominees.

He said he has talked to Obama about half a dozen times since the president’s inauguration in January, though he wouldn’t give any hints about what prompted the calls.

"I can’t tell you without telling what we talk about,” he said. "I can’t go there and then keep my confidence with him.

"We’re very good friends. We’re totally different, but we respect each other immensely, and we have a personal relationship that’s outside our politics. Who else does he have on my (Republican) side that he has a relationship with?

Fast friends
Obama and Coburn became fast friends in late 2004, just after the two had won their Senate seats and attended orientation sessions in Washington.

"He and I just really hit it off,” Coburn said.