December 18, 2002
We need to remember that Mississippi has a second Republican U.S. senator who, thankfully some commentators have observed, is not involved in national controversy and never has been.
Moderate-conservative Thad Cochran is that guy. While a firestorm surrounded his junior Senate colleague, Trent Lott, Cochran unobtrusively slipped into town last week.
Along with staffers at The Associated Press bureau here, I had a chance to sit down and talk with him for more than an hour.
The mere circumstances of Thad’s arrival at the AP bureau on the 13th floor of a downtown office building says a lot about him. He just walked in, then shucked off his topcoat. By himself. No entourage. No trail of cheerleaders or worshipful followers.
Schedule-makers in his Washington office had sent down word to the AP the day before that Thad would be under tight time constraints and 45 minutes would be max he could stay around. They said something about him having to visit a military academy.
At the outset, Thad discarded all the parameters laid down by his industrious staffers. “I’m in no hurry,” he said, “I’ll sit down and talk with you all as long as you want.” As for visiting a military academy, he added: “The only kind of gun I plan to be around will be a shotgun. I’m going quail hunting tomorrow.”
Thad certainly didn’t use the shotgun metaphor to segue into the much more compelling topic of war, namely the imminence of a war with Iraq, but it soon became apparent that the 65-year-old solon, who once served as a U.S. Naval officer, had some serious thoughts about war.
Unlike a number of his Republican colleagues, Cochran, though he realizes the nation faces a “dangerous situation,” certainly is not hawkish about the need for the U.S. launching a military offensive against Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi nation.
“I think we should wage peace aggressively,” Cochran said. “There are ways to achieve stability without going to war, and I believe we should pursue them.”
He praised President Bush for first seeking a resolution from the United Nations, resuming UN inspections for mass destruction weapons in Iraq before he launched any military action. “Just the threat of war could achieve our goals,” he added.
Cochran, who became the first Republican to be elected to statewide office when he won the Senate seat given up by legendary Mississippi Democrat Jim Eastland in 1978, was re-elected for the fourth time in November, without any Democratic opposition. In fact Mississippi Democrats have made no serious attempt to unseat him since 1984.
While his colleague, Trent Lott, found his record on race under intense national scrutiny over remarks he made recently that linked him to the segregationist 1948 Dixiecrats, Cochran, without any reference to Lott, said he was proud of his own record of racial sensitivity.
“I don’t know anyone who has tried to reach out more to minorities—and women as well—than I have,” he declared.
• Cochran was instrumental in getting funding for the Jackson Heart study and other programs at the Jackson Medical Mall which overwhelmingly benefits African-Americans in central Mississippi. The medical facility has been dedicated in his honor.
• In the past he has listened to the problems of welfare mothers and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program recipients, which, incidentally, is under the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That brings up the major Senate role Thad will occupy when the Republicans take over control of the U.S. Senate in January—namely, chairman of thee powerful Senate Agriculture Committee.
Thad had a lot to say about what he’s walking into as Agriculture chairman, coming on the heels of the 107th Congress passing a record multi-billion dollar farm bill—signed by the president—at a time the federal budget is deeply in the red.
Already, Cochran said, he has Agriculture Committee staff people working on ways to cut the costs of items in the farm bill. “We have to go back and reduce our numbers because of our deficit problem,” Cochran said. One funding item he hopes to protect is the WIC program.
Actually, the 2002 Farm Bill was only an authorization. Funding of agriculture, as well as a dozen other major appropriation bills left unfinished by the last Congress, have to be passed when it returns in January. “The upcoming session will be a major test of whether or not we have the courage to cut spending,” he added.
Cochran defended the longstanding program of agricultural crop subsidies. Some influential national critics, including the New York Times, have called for abolishing crop subsidies, partly because they unfairly tilt the price of American produce in the world market in competition with crops grown by smaller, Third World nations.
“Overall, our crop subsidies average 21 percent, which is actually less that many other countries, particularly in Europe where subsidies range all the way up to 45 percent,” Cochran declared.
On a personal level, while he doesn’t talk about it publicly, he makes frequent trips back home in order to visit with his wife, the former Rose Clayton, who is a resident at St. Catherine Village, the long-term health care facility located in Madison.
Rose Cochran has been under care for progressive dementia at St. Catherine’s for almost two years.
Meanwhile, Thad said when here the other day that he has his home in Alexandria, Va. up for sale. “I’m looking for a much smaller place, inside the District of Columbia, not too far from the Capitol,” he declared.
Thad confirmed one thing: He had come very close to not running for reelection two years ago, but was persuaded to stay on because of the asset he would be to Mississippi as Senate Agriculture chairman.
But he immediately followed with a comment that could have considerable impact in the Mississippi political arena: “I don’t have any long-range plans.”