Cochran v. McDaniel and the Legacy of John C. Stennis

In one week, Mississippi Republicans will select their nominee for the U.S. Senate.  This primary is essentially between two candidates: U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (the incumbent) and State Sen. Chris McDaniel.  As you may be aware, this has been one of the nastiest campaigns in recent Mississippi history.

Even though this is a Republican primary, the candidates would have served the electorate better by following the example of a well-respected Democrat, namely,  he late John C. Stennis.

Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1947 (during a special election), John Stennis represented Mississippi for 42 years.  He wrote the first code of ethics for the U.S. Senate, serving as the first chair of the Senate Ethics Committee. Stennis was such a respected senator that President Nixon suggested that he be allowed to listen to the now-infamous Watergate tapes to see if there was, in fact, anything incriminating in them.

At different times during his tenure, Sen. Stennis chaired both the Appropriations Committee and the Armed Services Committee.  Although he was a Democrat, he was quite conservative … so conservative that he and President Reagan worked closely to expand the U.S. Navy to 600 ships.  As a result, Sen. Stennis was sometimes called “the father of our modern navy.”  In fact, a few years after he left office, an aircraft carrier was commissioned in his honor.

In 1973, he was mugged and shot outside of his Washington home.  It nearly killed him.  Then, in 1984, he suffered the amputation of his leg.  (A few years after he had retired, I was told by my then-government teacher that Sen. Stennis didn’t want to run for reelection in 1988 because he believed that senators needed to stand up to vote, something he could no longer do with only one leg.)

Sen. Stennis was a tough guy who believed in the ideals of our country.  A man of integrity, his honor was more important than any accolade that Washington could bestow.  His principles gave him enough security that he felt zero need for cheap shots or negative attack ads.

So what does this have to do with his former colleague, Thad Cochran, or the latter’s opponent, Chris McDaniel?

In 1982, Sen. Stennis ran for reelection a final time.  He was up against a rising star in the Republican party.  (I am sure that you have heard of him, Haley Barbour, the future chairman of the Republican National Committee and future governor of the Magnolia State.)  The Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership describes that final campaign as follows:

In his final United States Senate re-election campaign in 1982, John Stennis was faced with the most challenging race since his first Senate election in 1947. At an early campaign strategy meeting, he was bombarded with advice from campaign consultants on what to expect from the opponent and what would be required to win the race. He listened politely to the authoritative statements from the campaign experts who prefaced each imperative with: “To win, we will have to do this.” When the consultants paused to catch their breath, Senator Stennis seized the opportunity to inform them of a point he considered very important. “There is one thing you really need to understand before we go any further,” he told them as he looked each one in the eye around the table. “We don’t have to win.”

It was his way of letting them know that his principles and values were much more important than winning an election. Despite the fact that none of the suggested tactics were in any way unethical or illegal, his personal character and integrity would not be compromised, even slightly. He would not engage in anything he considered in the least bit deceptive, no matter the consequences.

I still haven’t made my mind up as to who I will vote for next Tuesday.  Yes, I am leaning toward one of these candidates, but I may change my mind between now and then.  Nevertheless, I would have less trouble picking a candidate if I could see some resemblance to John Stennis in either of these men.  Unfortunately I do not.

Both men are conservative.  Both men would likely vote the way I would vote if I, myself, were commissioned to serve in that hollowed chamber.  So from a policy standpoint I have no beef about how each man thinks or would vote.

Still, any person could go to the Senate and vote the right way, but that doesn’t make him a statesman.  What makes him a statesman–a true leader–is how he values each and every one of his future constituents … including his opponent.

For most of Chris McDaniel’s life, Thad Cochran has represented his interests in the Senate.  Likewise, if McDaniel wins (next week and then again in November), he will represent Thad Cochran’s interests in the Senate.  Either way, if a Republican wins in November, next week’s winner will be working for the loser.

One who endeavors to become a statesman must be able to say, in good faith, that he is representing the best interests of ALL of his constituents.  But how can one say this if there are some constituents that he hates with a passion (such as his opponent and/or his supporters)?  I don’t think he can.

On a personal note, I ran for office last year.  It was a small, county race.  In a jurisdiction with about 30,000 people, less than 3,000 people voted.  I got beat… pretty handily, I must admit.  But after the campaign, on election night, I conceded to my opponent and hugged her neck in congratulation.  I could do that in clean conscience because I had not spent the previous months running her name into the ground.  I had learned from Sen. Stennis that I “didn’t have to win.”

Thad Cochran doesn’t have to win.  His legacy is secure.  Heck, his name is plastered on so many buildings that people will remember him for decades to come.  Likewise, Chris McDaniel doesn’t have to win.  Before his name was bandied about as a potential candidate, few people outside of Jones County knew who he was.  If he loses, Mississippi will survive just as it has for almost 200 years.

Charles DeGaulle observed that the cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men.  Sen. John Stennis understood this, hence the reason he didn’t feel compelled to resort to slime-ball tactics.  As a result of his classy behavior, this Republican Blogger sings his praises almost twenty years after his passing.

If Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel had demonstrated this same statesmanship, we would not be watching two honorable men slandering each other and destroying their own effectiveness to serve as public leaders in the process.  It is truly sad.

For what it is worth, I intend to vote for the winner during the November general election.  Although the presumed Democratic candidate is a nice guy, national politics are not as bipartisan as they once were, certainly not in the age of Obama.  Parties do matter, but to this end, so does party unity.  Unfortunately, party unity has been thrown under the bus as two grown men have adopted the “win-at-any-cost” philosophy when Stennis-esqe statesmanship was required.

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