In the days since the death of Sen. Thad Cochran, there have been numerous tributes and statements of appreciation for his life and legacy. It is fitting that so many have honored one of our most distinguished statesmen.
As a college student in 1972, I was a door-to-door volunteer for his first-ever campaign, viewing him as a hopeful symbol for the future of our state. That began a lifetime of friendship. When I ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994, then-Sen. Cochran campaigned alongside me, and he served as a role model once I arrived in Washington.
Sen. Cochran and I were both born in Pontotoc, and we used to tell a story on the campaign trail about how we were even delivered in the same room of the Rayburn Clinic, he in 1937 and I in 1951. Only later did we learn that the clinic had moved down the street in the years between, and that we had not even been born in the same building. Still, remembering the story made us smile from time to time and was emblematic of our friendship. As a former campaigner and eventually his Senate colleague, I have always been grateful for Thad Cochran.
Sen. Cochran shared his keen intellect and servant heart with everyone he met, becoming an Eagle Scout, accomplished pianist, valedictorian, student leader, ensign in the Navy, lawyer, Congressman and Senator. His first job was at Gunn’s Dairy Bar in Jackson. His last was as the 10th longest-serving senator in U.S. history. To paraphrase Tennyson, though much is taken with this loss, much abides of his enduring legacy.
He was the first Republican elected to statewide office from Mississippi since Reconstruction. He took his commitment to represent and work for all Mississippians seriously, hiring the first African-American congressional staffer from our state in 100 years.
Farmers know his work to strengthen agricultural communities during his chairmanships of the Agriculture and Appropriations Committees. With his help, our growers took their skills and knowhow to train more than 18,000 of their counterparts from around the world through the Cochran Fellowship Program. He made his educator parents proud by championing higher education programs here at home, including for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and in rural areas like the Mississippi Delta.
He was a strong and effective voice for America’s defense infrastructure, including shipbuilding programs for the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. He also led the National Missile Defense Act of 1999, which created our current missile defense program.
Sen. Cochran cast more than 13,000 votes during his career. But one moment in particular cemented his place in the Magnolia State’s history. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster our nation has ever seen, he led his colleagues to secure billions of dollars to rebuild. The Gulf Coast has come back today in no small part because of these actions.
Though Sen. Cochran was one of the most powerful people in Washington, he did not seek attention. He was on “Meet the Press” only twice in his 45 years of public service. He faithfully represented all Mississippians and earned the nickname “the Quiet Persuader.”
When he left the Senate, he said, “I am optimistic about the future of our great nation, and in the United States Senate’s role in determining that future.” I am, too. The example of Thad Cochran should give all Americans reason to be optimistic.