Mississippi is mourning the death Thursday morning in Oxford of former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, who will be remembered as a statesman and leader quick to give credit while rarely claiming any for himself, although year after year he steered home federal dollars and resources.
Cochran served 45 years in Washington, joining the House of Representatives in 1973 and the U.S. Senate after winning election in 1978. The 81-year-old never lost a general election.
He ushered in an era of Republican dominance in Mississippi, becoming the first from the party to win a statewide election in more than 100 years.
Former Gov. Haley Barbour, himself a longtime powerhouse in national Republican politics, said Cochran and former Sen. Trent Lott together shaped the Republican party in Mississippi.
Washington, Barbour said, could use more public servants cut from the same cloth as Cochran.
“He was a gentleman,” Barbour said. “He treated everybody fairly. He was polite. He wasn’t trying to get his ego massaged. He was trying to get the job done. He wanted to do for constituents, but mostly, he wanted to do for our country. That came first.”
Cochran was re-elected six times, resigning for health reasons before his seventh term ended. He was never known to grandstand or boast about his accomplishments, which included shaping agricultural policy and national spending as head of the Senate’s agricultural and appropriations committees when Republicans won majorities.
His time in office earned him nicknames, flattering and not: “The Quiet Persuader” and “King of Pork.”
In his farewell speech to the Senate, in March 2018, Cochran said: “I will now return to my beloved Mississippi and my family and friends there. I will miss this stately Chamber and this city. I will not miss this power or politics.”
Born a leader
Cochran was born December 7, 1937, in Pontotoc, Mississippi, one of two sons of William Holmes Cochran and Emma Grace Cochran. The Cochrans moved to Bryam, a rural suburb of Jackson, in 1946.
His leadership skills were evident from an early age. He was an Eagle Scout, who helped establish a new troop, and class valedictorian at Byram High School, where he earned varsity letters in football, basketball, baseball and tennis. Cochran also sang and played the piano, performing in a recital his senior year.
Church and education were integral to his life from childhood.
His first job was working as a carhop at Gunn’s Dairy Bar. He also clerked at a grocery store and cleared rights of way for a construction company, and worked with his father and brother on the family dairy farm. His brother, Nielson, would later serve as a state public service commissioner.
Cochran graduated in 1959 from the University of Mississippi with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in political science. While at Ole Miss, he and future Republican senator Trent Lott were cheerleaders.
His biography, shared with the media Thursday through office of Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who won a special election for the seat, says he was president of social fraternity Pi Kappa Alpha, a company commander in the Navy ROTC and student body vice president. He also was tapped for Omicron Delta Kappa, a national honorary leadership fraternity.
After graduation, Cochran was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy Reserves, where he was assigned to the USS Macon homeported in Boston. In the Navy, Cochran focused on the law, graduating with honors from the U.S. Navy School of Justice in Rhode Island.
Cochran completed a two-year active duty tour on the staff of the Commandant of the Eighth Naval District in New Orleans before enrolling in law school at Ole Miss, where he continued gaining leadership experience.
His first year of law school, he won the Frederick Hamel Memorial Award for the highest scholastic average and, as it turns out, he had the third-highest grade point average of any student graduating in the 1960s.
During the summers, Cochran resumed active duty in the Navy, teaching military law and naval orientation at Officer Candidate School in Rhode Island. He climbed to the rank of Lieutenant in the Navy Reserves.
After law school, he joined the Watkins & Eager law firm in Jackson and ventured into politics, first endorsing a candidate for Hinds County sheriff and working as Hinds County campaign chairman when Brad Dye won his race for state treasurer.
In 1978, he was executive director of Mississippi Citizens for Nixon-Agnew, his first venture in a Republican political campaign.
Cochran and wife Rose had two children and three grandchildren. She passed away after a lengthy illness in 2014. In 2015, he married longtime assistant Kay Webber in a private ceremony in Gulfport.
‘That’s our hero’
In Congress, Cochran was known for bringing home money for Mississippi, thus the moniker “King of Pork,” adept at securing earmarks for his native state. He served for 37 years on the Senate Appropriations Committee, according to the The New York Times.
The biography sent out by Hyde-Smith’s office said Cochran focused on economic development and education, state university initiatives, defense, agriculture, improving Mississippi’s national parks and conservation.
“He was one of our longest serving senators, and his influence can be felt in every corner of Mississippi,” said a statement from Gov. Phil Bryant, who requested Thursday that flags be flown at half-staff. “Whether it was fighting for resources during the dark days following Hurricane Katrina on the Coast or being a zealous advocate for farmers in the Delta, he dedicated himself to serving all Mississippians.
“The Quiet Persuader dominated Mississippi politics for nearly half a century, and he did so by being a gentleman. Senator Cochran has left a legacy of public service that should serve as an inspiration for all Americans.”
Cochran’s staff also admired him. T.A. Hawks worked in Cochran’s Washington office for 15 years, including time as chief of staff and staff director of the agricultural committee.
He told the Sun Herald:
“He was a smart and thoughtful man who directed us to treat everyone who walked through his office with respect no matter where they were from, their background or station in life.
“He could immediately put visitors to his office at ease by the way he treated them and, when pressed, he would often entertain them with the piano in his office. However, more often than not, he would ask them to play.”
Cochran was much the same in public as in private, Hawks said, with the exception of “a wry sense of humor that wasn’t often on display, unless he was using it with his colleagues to defuse tense situations.”
People will be talking about Cochran’s legislative legacy, but Hawks said the career hallmarks he will long remember are the former senator’s kindness and hard work, and the respect he showed others.
Leader during Katrina
Cochran was at the height of his power when Hurricane Katrina devastated Mississippi and New Orleans.
As chairman of appropriations, he helped secure $87 billion in Hurricane Katrina relief for Gulf states, including a bailout of Mississippi homeowers without flood insurance.
Barbour said the homeowners program had to be crafted from scratch because the federal Stafford Act did not contemplate mega-disasters.
Katrina hit on a Monday in August 2005. Tuesday, Cochran toured the Coast and Wednesday, he was in the governor’s office, where he told Barbour for the first of many times: “You figure out what you need and I’ll try to get it for you.”
Barbour went on to say that Cochran told him: “People down here in Mississippi will know far better what you need and how to manage it than anybody in Washington ever will.”
Cochran’s attitude and approach exemplified the person he was, Barbour said. “He had his ego totally under control. This was about how to do the best for the people of Mississippi and our country. He approached everything that way.”
On Katrina’s fifth anniversary, Barbour also noted Cochran’s vital role.
The governor had been with Lott and Cochran in Biloxi, at a first-anniversary hurricane commemoration: “Trent leaned over to me, pointed at (Cochran), and said, ‘That’s our hero.’ ”