The highlight of my years as a journalist here in Mississippi has been getting to know and sit down and talk with some of the state’s iconic representatives in Washington, people like Sonny Montgomery, Jamie Whitten and Thad Cochran, who passed away last week only a year after his retirement from the U.S. Senate.
Cochran may have been the last, unfortunately, of the state’s “old school” of politician, people who always put their own state and constituents first and party second. I like to think of that group – Montgomery, Whitten and Cochran – as the mom-and-pop operators who always put their customers first unlike today’s chain operations where everyone looks the same, extolls the same party line and doesn’t dare buck the corporate management.
All of those three were wholly unapologetic about their efforts to “bring home the bacon” to their home state, each steering millions of dollars in federal spending to Mississippi. With Whitten it was agriculture and getting goods to market, like his pet project, the Tenn-Tom Waterway. But there also was his support of the nation’s space program. For Montgomery, it was the GI Bill named after him which provided funding to educate America’s veterans and, among other things, earned him the Presidential Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest civilian award.
Cochran was the best friend Mississippi farmers could have hoped for in Congress, but he also was concerned about the nation’s defense, especially its missile defense. He used to vehemently deny to me that one such missile defense system, called THAAD, was named after him. I never believed him.
But he was also a champion of the Natchez Trace Parkway and often wondered if it would ever be finished in his lifetime. He always liked to joke that, “We’ve had a five-year plan to finish the Trace for 25 years.” It was finally completed in 2005. Years earlier, Cochran had informed me that he had had an article I had written about the Trace entered into the Congressional Record. I considered that quite an honor but take no credit. It was Cochran who led the battle.
Thad Cochran was one of the most down-to-earth people you’d ever want to meet despite his role as one of the most powerful members of Congress in his two stints as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
I’ll never forget running into him one day in the Walmart here in Oxford. Dressed casually, not in his usual business suit, and wearing a baseball cap, no one recognized him but me. He had no entourage, no security and seemed to be enjoying himself. We talked for a while about everything from the weather to politics standing in the toothpaste aisle.
Another time, I noticed the headline on a tabloid newspaper while waiting to check out at the grocery store. The headline screamed, “Six U.S. Senators Are Space Aliens!” Knowing I was going to be talking to Cochran the next day I determined to ask him about that.
Cochran, with his usual quick wit, didn’t miss a beat when I asked for his response.
“I would have thought there were more,” he said.
Rest in peace, senator.