During my first seven years of meetings with Mississippi’s congressional delegation on Capitol Hill, one thing was constant: Thad Cochran would be there. While some visits can be tricky to arrange, Sen. Cochran put me on his busy schedule and always stuck to it, even though on occasion he had to rush out for action on the Senate floor. He was almost apologetic for having to cut a few meetings short.
On each visit, Sen. Cochran loved to tell me the same story, as if I’d never heard it before. And each time, I was captivated by the passion with which he spoke. “You know, my daddy was one of the founders of (Mississippi) ETV,” he would say proudly. I would visit him to ask for his support for public television, and there wasn’t a single time that he didn’t deliver. He was a friend of public television, and everyone associated with the organization America’s Public Television Stations knew he was an important voice for our cause. Before every APTS national conference, I would get the question: “Are you meeting with Sen. Cochran?”
During that stretch of Hill visits, the senator was head of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, an assignment that cannot be appreciated until visiting his office and looking down the long hallway at the people working to support the office of that committee. Although I was there to push public media and my strong belief in it, sometimes I would lose focus and revel with pride in knowing a fellow Mississippian was making such an impact on the country. I often stood at his door and paused to take it all in. A Mississippian held one of the most powerful offices in the nation, and he thought enough of me to give me 30, sometimes 45 minutes of his time.
That was Sen. Cochran, who died Thursday in Oxford. He had long ago been given the name “Gentleman Thad.” That might be difficult for some to appreciate until spending time with him. He was the consummate gentleman. He loved God. He loved America. He so loved Mississippi. And in loving Mississippi, he made sure that a small state was never lost in the massive federal budget. The dollars he brought home to Mississippi are incalculable. The political clout, teaming with fellow former Sen. Trent Lott, gave Mississippi a formidable duo that made Mississippi matter. If any appropriations bill was to move forward, it had to go through Sen. Cochran.
I’ve been around the senator in various capacities for many years. When I was a newspaper editor, he was gracious and accommodating. He would visit The Clarion-Ledger’s Editorial Board and we all felt his gentlemanly presence. When election time rolled around, I never once heard him bash an opponent. He preferred to talk about the country. It was hard to get the man to talk about himself. There was no need to talk about his resume’; that spoke for itself.
In 2018, when I visited the senator on Capitol Hill, I didn’t know it would be the final time. As I sat in his tastefully decorated office, rumors back home suggested that Sen. Cochran was considering stepping down. They were reasonable and logical. It was obvious and difficult to ignore that his health was beginning to fail him. But I didn’t want to believe that the end of his tenure was near. The meetings with him were a mix of Washington politics and discussions on funding public television. But they always seemed to turn around to Mississippi. He worked in Washington, but his mind never left Mississippi.
I did manage to ask him during our final visit if indeed the rumors were true. He politely moved on to another topic. It would only be a matter of days before the news broke that he had decided to resign the office. It wasn’t a surprise. In fact, it gave me reason to put his long career into perspective. We may never see another politician like Sen. Cochran, one with the ability to disagree in such a noble way. He was Gentleman Thad and much more. When I visited Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith, who won a special election for Sen. Cochran’s seat, on the Hill in February, I was impressed with her kindness, thoughtfulness, and extremely warm reception. For a second, however, I thought about the man with whom I had visited for seven years. And I thought about that story that didn’t get repeated this year. It’s a story I will never forget: “Did you know that my dad was one of the founders of ETV?”
Yes senator I do. And, as fondly as he remembered his father, I will remember his father’s son. I will remember the grace of a man who served his state and his country with honor and distinction. He was a man who left an impression that I shall hold onto for the rest of my life. Thank you Thad Cochran. Thank you very much sir.
Ronnie Agnew is executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting and immediate past board chairman of America’s Public Television Stations.