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Thad Cochran, Longtime Southern Gentleman of the Senate, Dies at 81

May 30, 2019 by Dan McCue
United States Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) listens as U.S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Marine Corps General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. testify at a US Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on March 22, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Ron Sachs/CNP/Zuma Press/TNS)

Former Senator Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who served in Congress for more than 45 years and was renowned for his Southern refinement and willingness to reach across the aisle to get things done, died Thursday morning at the age of 81.

Cochran, who twice served as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and also served on the Senate Agriculture Committee, resigned from Congress in April 2018 citing health concerns.

His death was announced on Thursday by the office of his successor, Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss.

The simple statement ended with the Cochran family extending “its gratitude for the support shown to the Senator by Mississippians over the years.”

Cochran was first elected to the Senate in 1978, becoming the first Republican in more than 100 years to win a statewide election in Mississippi.

He replaced longtime Senator James Eastland, a Democrat known as the “Godfather of Mississippi Politics,” who was retiring, and went on to become the 10th-longest-serving senator in U.S. history.

Prior to his serving in the Senate, Cochran was elected to three terms in the House of Representatives.

Throughout his career, he always appeared more concerned with Mississippi’s well-being than grabbing his share of the spotlight.

While his ability to secure billions in federal spending for Mississippi universities, ports and infrastructure over the years sometimes caused him to be criticized as a purveyor of pork, those who knew him best recalled his immense ability as a courtly but firm behind-the-scenes consensus-builder.

This ability was perhaps at no time more on display that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when Cochran, then in his first go-round as Appropriations Committee chair, talked reluctant colleagues eager to get home for Christmas into providing $29 billion in emergency relief, including $5 billion in discretionary HUD Community Development Block Grant money for his home state.

“The Almanac of American Politics” described Cochran as personifying “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.”

Nevertheless, he once told U.S. News and World Report that “criticism of Congress is well earned.”

“Decision-making is hampered by partisan considerations in too many instances … My impression during my short tenure here is that we have too many party loyalists and not enough statesmen,” he said.

Cochran was elevated to serve as the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman again in 2015 after Republicans regained the Senate majority.

He served as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee from 2003-2005.

Cochran was born in Pontotoc, a small town in northeast Mississippi, the son of a school principal and a teacher.

His family later moved to Jackson, the state capital, where he graduated valedictorian of Byram High School. Cochran later received a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Mississippi, where he was also on the cheerleading squad.

Cochran then joined the U.S. Navy, in which he served from 1959 to 1961, and later returned to the University of Mississippi, from which he received his law degree in 1965.

Until this point Cochran considered himself a Democrat, but he switched to the Republican party shortly after his law school graduation.

Three years later, Cochran helped lead the statewide campaign to elect Richard Nixon president, a move that paved the way for the Mississippian’s election to the House.

As he gained seniority and influence, he spent much of his time on Capitol Hill focusing on agriculture and appropriations, often laboring long hours in relative solitude, interrupted only by breaks to play the piano he kept in his office.

And he often worked with Democrats, most notably when he was one of only 11 Republicans who voted to pass the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill.

Shortly before his retirement, Cochran sat for an interview with the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate, and spoke of his disappointment in the partisanship that has gripped the institution in recent years.

“I’m not going to suggest what the motives are or why they’re doing it, but it’s just a fact,” he said of the often bitter fights that have erupted over court appointments and other matters. “It’s pure partisan politics, and it’s brutal, mean-spirited, and I don’t like it.

“Serving in the Senate has gotten to be almost a contact sport, and that’s regrettable, in my view,” Cochran said. “I would like for it to be more like it was when I first came to the Senate. There was partisanship, right enough, and if you were in the majority, you got to be chairman of all the subcommittees, and none of the Republicans, in my first two years, were chairmen of anything, but that’s fine. That’s the way the House is operated. I’d seen that in the House, and that’s okay. Everybody understands it.

“But since it’s become so competitive—and the House has too—things are more sharply divided along partisan lines than they ever have been in my memory, and I think the process has suffered,” he said. “The legislative work product has deteriorated to the point that legislation tends to serve the political interests of one party or the other, and that’s not the way it should be.”

“The Senate, especially, is constructed and exists to ensure calm, careful, thorough deliberation, and more often than not, we’ve abandoned that in favor of the sharp, political confrontations you see that end up on television and get people’s names in the paper, dominate the headlines, and create an impression out in the countryside that all they’re doing in Washington now is just fighting among themselves. The confidence in the quality of government has deteriorated because of that, and that’s very unfortunate,” he said.

Rose Cochran died in 2014 after 50 years of marriage. The next year, Cochran married Kay Webber, an aide who was exactly his age at the time, 77.

Survivors include his wife, Kay Webber Cochran, two children from his first marriage, Clayton Cochran of New Albany, Miss., and Kate Cochran of Hattiesburg, Miss.; a brother; and three grandchildren.

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