Thad Cochran – one of the best to ever serve Mississippi
For a man who was elected to the U.S.House of Representatives in 1972 and the U.S. Senate in 1978. Sen. Thad Cochran left quietly when he retired earlier this month. Cindy Hyde-Smith was appointed by Gov. Bryant to serve until the November 2018 special election. Headlines have been dominated by Cochran’s health, who Bryant would appoint to take Cochran’s place, what state Sen. Chris McDaniel would do, and the possible candidates in the special election. During almost 50 years of writing about Mississippi politics, I have met the good, the bad, and the ugly of the many politicians who have held or sought office in our state. There is no question Cochran has been and always will be one of my favorites.
I first met Cochran in 1972 when he, Trent Lott, and a college professor named Carl Butler were running for U.S. House seats and I was the state campaign manager for the very longshot, even hopeless campaign of Gil Carmichael who was opposing powerful Democrat James O. “Big Jim” Eastland. Carmichael was in the senate race because James Meredith was running as a Republican and Clarke Reed and other state leaders were horrified Meredith might be the GOP nominee for the senate in November. The Meridian car dealer was put in the primary to defeat Meredith. One of the big events of the campaign was when then Vice President Spiro Agnew was coming to Mississippi to endorse the four congressional candidates. At the time, Agnew was even considerably more popular in Mississippi than President Richard Nixon. This was, of course, before
Agnew resigned in disgrace about a year later. In early 1973 Agnew was investigated by a U.S. Attorney in Maryland for bribery, tax fraud, conspiracy, and extortion when he was governor of that state. The payments to Agnew continued into the time when he served as vice president. Agnew negotiated a deal that involved his resignation from office and a guilty plea on one of the charges.
VP Agnew coming to Mississippi in 1972 was a very big deal
But in 1972 Agnew coming to Jackson to endorse the Republican candidates was a very big deal, and many Republicans, rightly so, thought Agnew’s visit could be a difference maker. A few days before Agnew’s scheduled visit, Carmichael, the three congressional candidate and their campaign managers were called to an urgent meeting in Jackson. The meeting took place in the tower of old Hawkins Field. Carmichael was promptly told Agnew would endorse the others, but not him. Carmichael was surprised and almost in shock. Frankly, I was not surprised. Although a Democrat, Eastland, as president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had tremendous influence with Nixon. At the conclusion of the meeting, I vividly remember Cochran coming over to me and expressing his sincere regret that Carmichael was given the shaft regarding Agnew’s visit. The gesture meant a lot to me. Frankly, I don’t think Lott or Butler gave a damn about the exclusion of Carmichael from the Agnew event. Of course, during future years back in Mississippi and when I lived in Washington, D.C. for 19 years, I would see Cochran many times. My feelings that he was such a decent gentleman who served Mississippi well never diminished. Our state was so very fortunate to have him represent Mississippi for almost 50 years. During his tenure, Cochran did so very much for Mississippians. And Cochran leaving office so quietly is also very typical of this very decent man.
FOOTNOTE TO THE 1972 ELECTION – On election night in 1972, Cochran and Trent Lott both won election to the U.S. House, Carl Butler lost and Carmichael lost to Eastland, but Carmichael’s loss was much closer than expected. Throughout the campaign, state Republican Chairman Clarke Reed often he expected Butler to have a much better chance of winning than Cochran or Lott. After the GOP victory party election night, I happen to ride down the hotel elevator with Reed. With Cochran and Lott wining and Butler losing, Reed made the following comment about Butler: “I never really liked that guy anyway.” So typical Clarke Reed.