Thad Cochran’s life will be remembered for its devotion to Mississippi and gentlemanly approach to solving the problems this nation and this state face.
The longtime Republican leader, who died Thursday at 81 after stepping down from the U.S. Senate last year following 45 years of service in Washington, was always something of an exception to the rule of Mississippi’s politicians, who through the years have often appealed to the worst emotions of the people to secure their votes and the power that comes with it.
Cochran was different. He wasn’t a loud, back-slapping politician, but he got things done effectively using a personal approach that earned him the nickname the “Quiet Persuader,” winning friends on both sides of the political aisle.
He used those relationships and the power over the purse strings that his long tenure in the Senate provided to steer billions of dollars back to his home state for farmers, military contractors and installations, universities and colleges, and highway projects. His effectiveness at “bringing home the bacon” would eventually earn him national criticism from fiscally conservative purists, but Mississippi benefitted immensely from his tenure in Congress.
At no time was that more evident than when Hurricane Katrina leveled the Gulf Coast in 2005. It was extremely fortuitous for Mississippi that this unprecedented national disaster coincided with Cochran’s first stint as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. With an assist from Haley Barbour, the state’s well-connected Republican governor, Cochran was able to steer more than $100 billion to Mississippi and other Gulf Coast states to fast-track their recovery.
Mississippi, in fact, became so dependent on Cochran’s influence on farm policy and infrastructure and economic development spending that he was encouraged to stay on a decade longer in the Senate than he probably wanted to or should have.
It was ironic that Cochran’s shift to the Republican Party in the late 1960s occurred during the first presidential campaign of Richard Nixon, who implicitly appealed to conservative white Southerners’ racial grievances in order to gain their support and break the Democratic monopoly on the region. Cochran, a racially moderate Republican who replaced a Democratic segregationist, didn’t resort to divisive politics or to demonizing social welfare programs. He championed food stamps just as forcefully as he did farm subsidies. He was an advocate for all of the state’s colleges and universities, including the historically black institutions. In fact, when in 2014 he faced his toughest re-election contest ever, it was black support that kept him in office.
Following Cochran’s death, The Washington Post pulled a description of Cochran in the latter years of his political career from “The Almanac of American Politics.” It said that he personified “an all-but-vanished breed of Southern Republicans — amiable to all, conservative but not rigidly so, a devoted institutionalist, and a proficient procurer of funding for his poor, rural state.”
That says it well. Cochran tried to do the right thing, to treat others the right way and to bring no disgrace to the people who elected him. It is an epitaph to which every politician should aspire.