Reflections on Red Muskogee and Blue Baltimore [5-8-15]

Dear Friends:

Thomas Edsall is a regular political and social critic for the NYTimes and his articles are usually full of statistical analyses of deep controversial issues. His tact is to marshal some statistical studies and solicit some responsive comments from carefully selected ‘authorities’ and observers about those issues. A recent article by him entitled Sex, Drugs and Poverty in Red and Blue America was an arresting discussion of and comparison between Red Muskogee, Oklahoma and Blue Baltimore, Maryland. In its own right the article is sobering, but it was especially interesting about Muskogee, Oklahoma, the small city toward which Sarah and lived when we moved to our cottage on Ft. Gibson Lake in eastern Oklahoma. I will say more about Muskogee below.

But the main question posed by Edsall is whether Red/Republican political rhetoric and practice has actually produced social improvements in cities/states in which they have been the primary political power, in comparison to the obviously Blue/Democratic Baltimore of recent infamy in the news. Edsall concludes, after examining a range of social statistics that cities/states in which Red/Republicans have been in charge have not been any more successful at addressing and solving some of most challenging sociopolitical issues of our time. And yes, I was astonished to see Baltimore, the scene of disturbing social, legal, and political controversy in recent weeks, compared to my sleepy and conservative Muskogee. But the comparison is quite revealing and worth a pause for sober reflection.

Well, here is the internet address of the article. Read it carefully. And below I will recall some of our experience of living within the sociopolitical ambience of Muskogee.

In 2000, upon retiring from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, where I had taught theology and ethics since 1988, Sarah and I moved into a cabin on Ft. Gibson Lake in eastern Oklahoma. The cabin had been in Sarah’s family since 1970 and after some improvements seemed a hospitable place to retire.

The nearest larger sized town was Muskogee, a 22-mile 30-minute drive along hilly and winding two-lane roads from our remote cabin. We also ended up going to church there and enjoyed close friendships with many of the leaders in the town. Up until about 35 years ago, Muskogee—a variant name for the Creek Indian Tribe—had enjoyed favorable treatment by the Democratic Party. But by the time we moved there, Republicans had long controlled both federal senators, and shortly thereafter Dr. Tom Coburn, a Muskogee physician intent on reducing federal financing and debt, was elected to the U.S. Senate.

My relation to Senator Coburn is sobering but interesting. His father, Dr. O. W. Coburn, an optician in Muskogee, had founded the highly successful and hugely profitable Coburn Optical Industries. Several decades ago he had been a generous financial supporter of Phillips University, founded by enthusiasts of the Disciples of Christ branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement. I became Dean of the Graduate Seminary at Phillips in 1975, and in 1979, seized by a hubristic impulse, I accepted an invitation to become President of Phillips University. Upon sitting in the president’s chair, I immediately became a fund-raiser and Coburn’s father came up as one who used to support Phillips in a handsome way. So, I began trying to call Coburn’s father to make an appointment to get acquainted and, hopefully, secure a substantial contribution. But once I identified myself as president of Phillips hoping to speak with Dr. Coburn, I was told that he was unavailable. Finally, after several more calls an exasperated male voice—son-of-the-father?—got on the line and firmly told me to not call back, that Phillips was too liberal, etc., etc. I later learned that in 1979 the elder Coburn had endowed the O.W. Coburn School of Law at Oral Roberts University; curiously that law school would close in 1985. And yes, I should have known all of that before calling!

After our move to the lake, I finally met Dr. Tom Coburn face to face in the town of Ft. Gibson as I was emerging from the barbershop. There was Coburn, campaigning for public office on the sidewalk and handing out literature. He shook my hand in a friendly way and gave me a campaign brochure. I introduced myself as the former President of Phillips University and that his father had been a wonderful supporter some years ago; whereupon Coburn turned and walked away without another word! No discussion, no greeting, nothing! Upon later reflection, his silent turning away still speaks volumes! Even so, I am sure Coburn would never remember our stark encounter outside the barbershop in Ft. Gibson.

It might also be relevant to Edsall’s article to mention that Coburn had become a Southern Baptist, and when he retired early from the Senate in 2014, he was replaced by Republican James Lankford, an erstwhile former Southern Baptist youth minister.

I should perhaps add that I do not think Tom Coburn would be surprised by Edsall’s article. Deep in his heart I suspect he always knew the so-called liberal/conservative divide was itself a reflection of a nation gone off the tracks of democracy and the public good. It is a gridlock that is not likely to help either Muskogee or Baltimore to soon come to grips with their disarray.

And just to keep the historical record clear and correct, I have never voted for Coburn! But he did become a friend, if not a supporter, of Obama, and I respect that!

Comments welcomed.



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Reader Responses

Donna O'

responded on 05/09/15

Thoughtful!  Thank you.  How to bridge the gap. 
My daughter and I are in Fort Worth for my 50th reunion at TCU. 
  Peace.    Donna O’

Gary Hart

responded on 05/09/15

Thanks for focusing attention on the Edsall article.  One ideology or the other—conservative or liberal—does not have a corner on addressing profound social changes, whether in Muskogee or Baltimore.  We are still one nation, neither red nor blue, but American.  When we tire of the ranters, we will regain that sense of national unity.

Ron Byars

responded on 05/09/15

Another sort of comparison would be to study the economies of Republican Kansas or Wisconsin in contrast to Blue states to get a good idea of how trickle-down economics actually works out when road-tested.