By: T.A. Hawks, Monument Advocacy
This week, Sen. Thad Cochran announced that his 45th year of service in Congress would be his last. As someone who has been lucky enough to have a front-row seat for nearly a third of that distinguished career, I saw close up the traits that made Cochran one of the great advocates Mississippi will ever have.
These traits are exceedingly rare in today’s divided political climate. Which is why, before the rush of articles on who will succeed him and what his retirement means for the Senate, it’s worth reflecting on the leadership characteristics Cochran brings to the job each day. Hopefully they can serve as lessons for those who follow in his footsteps.
First and foremost, Cochran treats everyone with respect. He also expects everyone around him to do the same. Nowhere was that more evident than in his personal disdain for acronyms and “inside the beltway” speech in the office and with constituents. He wanted visitors to the office to feel comfortable, and talking “at” them or “around” them wasn’t a way to show hospitality. We were asked to speak in plain English when we veered into wonky procedure talk or spat out some long military acronym that wouldn’t likely be known by others in the room. (Yes, his parents were educators.)
Cochran can disagree without being disagreeable. He holds strong opinions, but that never prevents him from producing results for the people of Mississippi. These days, people in politics can make a quick name for themselves by personal attacks on political opponents, but Cochran developed close working relationships with members with whom he disagreed by getting to know them. It’s a lot harder to criticize people and their motives in the press if you’re sharing a meal with them regularly or you’ve spent time with their parents and children.
Several years back, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who met the future Mississippi Senator when Cochran was a Navy officer stationed in New England, said, “Then as now, Thad Cochran possessed a deep sense of fairness and compassion, a great commitment to this country we all love, and, above all, good judgment and good humor. Thad and I don’t always agree on policy matters — and more often than not we find ourselves on the opposite side of the issues — but those disagreements never diminish my respect for his thoughtfulness, nor do they diminish the friendship I feel toward him.”
Cochran is a listener. He focuses on the people before him, and he has never been one to migrate toward the closest television camera or reporter. He’s much more likely to sidestep reporters and assume they want to talk to someone else. His questions in committee hearings weren’t often the ones his staff drafted for him, but his preference was to listen to the people who appeared before his committees and ask them questions based on their testimony. If I’m totally honest, it was sometimes frustrating to his staff, but we had to appreciate that he listened and engaged with people, many of whom had traveled a great distance to testify in Washington.
This week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made reference to Cochran’s behind-the-scenes effectiveness by pointing out that he’s been called the “Quiet Persuader.” McConnell said, “Thad knows there’s a big difference between making a fuss and making a difference … Senator Cochran’s talents made him chairman of the Appropriations Committee. At this key post, his calm and collegial approach to even the most intense debates have made his broad experience and deep expertise that much more valuable to his colleagues, his constituents, and his country.”
Cochran is a workhorse. He kept up a schedule into his late 70s that colleagues decades younger wouldn’t attempt. With a calendar broken up into 15- or 30-minute increments depending on the time of the year, he prioritized meeting personally with everyone who requested a meeting. He believed if someone made it up to Washington, D.C., from Hernando or Pascagoula, Clarksdale or Meridian, it might be their only trip and they ought to be able to talk to their elected representatives. So while he might be scheduled to meet with cabinet secretaries or foreign leaders, Cochran has been more interested in hearing from families, farmers, educators and local officials on issues that affect them — issues as varied as juvenile diabetes and roads and bridges that are vital for their communities. He could even be cajoled into playing a few bars on the piano in his personal office, but he was much more likely to ask others if they played and then have fun watching them.
As Cochran resigns his seat in the coming month, my best wishes go to him and his family for some well-deserved rest. Mississippi will quickly turn toward what promises to be a colorful set of Senate elections this year. Those who have worked closely with Thad Cochran will reflect on his long history of service to our state and country and be thankful that we’ve had the benefit of a smart and strong leader who cared about others and asked those around him to do the same. I’m grateful for his mentorship and friendship to me and countless others who have come through his office and have become part of his life.
This article originally appeared in the Clarion Ledger on March 10, 2018. To read the original post click here.