‘He’s a model for what the Senate should be’: U.S. senators eulogize Thad Cochran and the political style he left behind

Print Share on LinkedIn More

Desmond Boylan, AP

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., gives a press conference alongside Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., at the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, on Feb. 22, 2017.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy stood behind Sen. Thad Cochran’s casket and held back tears as he eulogized his old friend and a bygone era of civility across party lines in American politics.

“I can’t help but feel the Senate is more empty without him, because he was a man of his word. I wish there were more like him,” Leahy said. “His legacy will live long in programs that got strong support from Democrats and Republicans in the Senate… He’s a model for what the Senate should be, and he proved it can be.”

It’s unlikely, in today’s hyper-partisan Congress, that a liberal Democrat from Vermont and a conservative Republican from Mississippi could be close friends. But longtime Sens. Leahy and Cochran, who passed away on Thursday morning at age 81, defied those standards. Their friendship dates back to 1978, the year Cochran was elected to the Senate after serving three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“He’s the best friend I have in the Senate,” Leahy told Mississippi Today in 2017. “He always keeps his word. I know he’ll keep his word to me, he knows I’ll keep my word to him. Unfortunately, some in both parties are forgetting that.”

Their friendship was built on shared interests, particularly regarding their states’ rural, agrarian geography and reliance on federal funding. At one time or another, both served as chair of the Agriculture Committee, and both have served as top leaders of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

The two traveled the world together and became familiar with each other’s homes. Cochran once traveled to Montpelier with Leahy when the temperature hit 20 below zero, and Leahy traveled to the catfish farms of the Delta during the peak of Mississippi’s hellish summer.

That’s why it was no surprise that Leahy was asked to speak at his friend’s funeral on Tuesday in Jackson, where friends of Cochran gathered to celebrate his life and legacy one last time.

“When he delivered his farewell speech last year, it was the most difficult times I’ve had on the Senate floor,” Leahy said. “I had tears, but he turned to me and said he and I had fought side by side with each other, sometimes face to face against each other, but always with friendship and respect. No matter the issue, we’d walk out of the Senate chamber with our arms around each other.”

The funeral service at Northminster Baptist Church, where Cochran was a member, was an intimate, more personal affair than the highly politicized service at the Mississippi Capitol on Monday, where Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn spoke.

At Northminster, speakers who had deep, personal relationships with the senator told jokes about the late senator, including several comments about his full head of white hair and his affinity for the Ole Miss Rebels.

Cochran’s children, Kate Cochran and Clayton Cochran, read scripture. Attendees sang the senator’s favorite hymn “Amazing Grace,” and the Navy hymn, “Eternal Father Strong to Save,” was played, a nod to Cochran’s time as a Naval officer.

Retired Rear Adm. Barry Black, the U.S. Senate chaplain, delivered the homily. The theme of Black’s homily, based on Hebrews 11, was Cochran’s significant legacy.

“Sen. Cochran was a man who built a life that continues to speak to us,” Black said. “And we, inspired by that light, should strive to build lives that continue to speak because death is not the final word for people of faith.”

Cochran’s last chief of staff, Brad White, walked with the senator’s widow, Kay Cochran, to the front of the church, and Northminster pastor Chuck Poole mentioned Rose Cochran, the senator’s first wife who passed away in 2014.

Former staffers wiped tears from their eyes during the service, and extended family consoled one another. About 300 people packed into the sanctuary, decorated with Magnolia flowers and leaves, for the funeral of one of Mississippi’s most prominent sons.

“Thad was one of the last of his kind,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, who took over Appropriations chairman after Cochran retired. “If there was one thing that was always known about Thad Cochran, it was his love for his state of Mississippi… The nation will miss Thad Cochran.”

After the Monday service at the Mississippi State Capitol, Cochran lay in state there through Monday night. Before the Mississippi Highway Patrol moved his body to Northminster on Tuesday morning, he was honored with the playing of “Taps” and a 21-gun salute. Cochran will be buried in Oxford at a later date.