Thad Cochran funeral: State leaders honor senator’s legacy at Capitol memorial

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

The late Republican Sen. Thad Cochran funeral service was held at the state Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Monday, June 3, 2019.

Thad Cochran’s legacy was on full display at the state Capitol Monday morning as state leaders honored the late senator and his 45-year congressional career.

The service for Cochran, who died last week at the age of 81, focused not just on the senator’s influence and character but on his place, as Republican Speaker Philip Gunn put it, as “arguably the most celebrated personal servant in the history of our state.”

“He was one of those public figures who only needed one name. You said Thad, everyone knew who you were talking about,” Gov. Phil Bryant said. “Everyone knew him, everyone wanted to be his close friend, whether they were or not. Thad wanted to make them feel as such.”

The respect Cochran held statewide was evidenced by Monday’s service. As the senator’s casket traveled from his home in Oxford to the Capitol in Jackson, where he lay in repose all day Monday, many of the bridges overhanging the route were draped with huge American flags.

At the Capitol, the crowd of about 300 included most Republican statewide officeholders, including U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who replaced Cochran after his retirement last year as well as U.S. Congressman Michael Guest.

Mississippi’s senior senator, Roger Wicker of Tupelo, did not attend the ceremony. He along with other Mississippi congressmen and U.S. senators representing several other states are expected to attend  Tuesday’s ceremony at Northminster Baptist Church, where Cochran was a member while he lived in Jackson.

Cochran, who was elected to the U.S. House in 1972 and the U.S. Senate in 1978, never served in state government. But Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who is running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, told the audience that a service in the state Capitol was a fitting memorial for the late senator.

“I can think of no more appropriate place for him to be this morning… than the people of Mississippi’s Capitol,” Reeves said. “While Sen. Cochran served in a Capitol building far away, he always represented his people, his constituents” in Mississippi.

The senator’s former minister, Chuck Poole of Northminster Baptist Church, led the audience in a prayer. Meanwhile the speakers – Bryant, Reeves, and Gunn – focused on Cochran’s importance to the state of Mississippi.

Each mentioned the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when Cochran, who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee at the time, steered $40 billion to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

But the secret of Cochran’s legacy, Gunn said, was that his importance to Mississippi hinged “not on what he did but who he was.”

“Most of all he remembered he was there to serve and not to be served,” Gunn said. “And he did all of this with grace, character, honor and class.”

In addition to the Cochran’s importance to Mississippi, Bryant also focused on the senator’s importance to the Mississippi Republican Party.

When Cochran won his U.S. House seat in 1972, he became the first Republican elected to Congress from Mississippi since Reconstruction. His election to the Senate six years later marked the first time in as long that Mississippi had sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate.

Loosely paraphrasing the Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken,” Bryant said about Cochran: “In 1972, he took the road less traveled by.”

When Cochran first ran for office in 1972, Mississippi was a state controlled by the Democratic Party. Over the next four decades, then-Democratic leaders flipped to the Republican Party in droves. In many cases, the officeholders themselves didn’t change, but their party labels did.

Cochran, Bryant said, began the wave of Republicanism that controls Mississippi today.

“See in those days there were political candidates that seemed to polarize in Mississippi. Then along came this young man from Pontotoc, Mississippi, who changed the entire political dynamic. No longer was it simply white or black or region against another region or Democrats against this new party of Republicans that was growing so strong in the 1970s,” Bryant said.

“Cochran was a candidate for every man and every woman and every race and every gender and every population within his beloved Mississippi.”

Calling Cochran “the All-American boy,” Bryant talked about the senator’s tenure in the U.S. Navy, his childhood as an Eagle Scout and what he suggested was a surprising twist in his senior year of high school, that a tri-varsity athlete would also perform a piano and voice recital.

“I would say that was a unique experience for the Byram High School class,” Bryant said with a laugh.

Although only Republicans spoke, those coming to honor Cochran included such Democrats as former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and former U.S. Rep. Mike Espy, the first African American elected to the U.S. House from Mississippi since the 1800s. The only statewide official not in attendance was Attorney General Jim Hood, who is also running for governor this year.

Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to replace Cochran in April 2018 when he resigned for health reasons and was later elected to the Senate post, said Cochran left her a good foundation – including many of the late senator’s staffers.

She said she visited Cochran in his Washington, D.C., office after being appointed to replace him. She said they sat down at the piano in his office and began playing tunes together.

“He was quite accomplished,” she said. The impromptu concert ended, though, with her playing “God Bless America” and Cochran singing alone.

Ceremonies in the rotunda of the state Capitol are reserved for statewide elected officials and the speaker of the House.

In recent years, ceremonies were held for Govs. Bill Allain, Bill Waller and Kirk Fordice and Speaker C.B. “Buddie” Newman and Lt. Gov. Evelyn Gandy.

“He was a statesman,” said Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs. “I never came to Washington when he did not take time out of his schedule to meet with me.”