For the final week of the watershed 1978 Mississippi campaign for the U.S. Senate, Biloxi Sun Herald reporter Lloyd Gray and Jackson Clarion-Ledger reporter Jo Ann Klein traveled and reported on the campaign of Republican candidate Thad Cochran.
They traveled in the same vehicle with Cochran and his wife, Rose, stayed in the same motel/hotel and often, but not always, ate meals together. Occasionally Cochran would stress a comment was off the record, but in general the reporters had near total access to Cochran’s successful effort to be the first Republican to win statewide office in Mississippi in the modern era.
Gray of Meridian, now executive director of the Phil Hardin Foundation after a long journalism career, said Cochran “had no fear” of dealing with the media.
Gray said he could not imagine that kind of transparency “happening today with any politician” and added that it was unusual even for that time period.
“He was an icon of a different era, but even for that era he was a different sort,” Gray said.
Cochran, at one time one of the most powerful members of the U.S. Senate, died Thursday in Oxford after a lengthy illness at age 81. People who view Cochran through the lens of the end of his political career, particularly through the prism of his last 2014, bare-knuckled campaign, do not have a full and accurate understanding of Thad Cochran and his place in Mississippi political history.
In that 2014 campaign, Cochran seldom did interviews and for a good portion of the campaign did few political events. He was almost in hiding — not a good way to run a campaign. It was only after state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, a tea party favorite, won the most votes in the Republican primary, but did not garner the majority needed to avoid a runoff, that Cochran began to run a semblance of a real campaign.
That lackluster campaign could have been a product of poor health or just the fact that Cochran was ready to step down, but was convinced to run again to maintain the powerful Appropriations chair that was so important to Mississippi.
At any rate, Paul “Buzzy” Mize of Tupelo, who worked on Cochran’s first Senate campaign in 1978 as a recent Mississippi State University graduate, said Cochran “was turned loose” at the end of the 2014 campaign. Mize, who had remained closed to Cochran since that 1978 campaign, said he saw the old Cochran then.
For instance, Mize remembers Cochran giving a thoughtful answer to a question at a campaign event in Fulton on what it took to be successful in the U.S. Senate. Mize said Cochran spoke of building consensus and of working hard.
It also was in Fulton in Itawamba County that Mize traveled with Cochran in 1978. Mize said at the time he had a new, yellow Ford pickup truck.
“After the first day, he said he was driving. He did not like the way I drove,” said Mize who admitted he might have been a bit hyper for the famously low-key and calm Cochran. “I still have that truck.”
Near the end of the 2014 campaign, Cochran again campaigned with Mize in that truck.
“Did he still drive?” Mize was asked.
“No, but he didn’t let me drive either,” Mize joked. “My not driving was the key.”
At one point during his tenure as Appropriations chair, a reporter in Mississippi called Cochran’s spokesperson late one evening asking for a comment on a particular federal issue impacting the state. The reporter left that night without ever getting a response.
The next morning, the reporter found that Cochran had personally called late the night before, leaving a message on the answering machine responding to the question. Cochran ended the phone call by telling the reporter to call him if additional information was needed. Normally it would take days, if not weeks, to get a one-on-one interview with a politician with the power that Cochran had at that time.
That accessibility all changed in the 2014 election — perhaps one election too many even for Thad Cochran who resigned from office in April 2018, a little more than three years into his six-year term.
Cochran never served in state office, only in federal positions in the U.S. House and Senate. Yet, perhaps signifying the importance of Cochran to the state for many, a service will be held honoring him at 11 a.m. Monday at the state Capitol. A service also will be held Tuesday at Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson.
This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.