By CHRIS HARRIS Commonwealth Journal*
There are few lawmakers walking the streets of Washington D.C. today more qualified than Sen. Mitch McConnell to talk about one of Somersets favorite sons, the late Sen. John Sherman Cooper.
Its not just that he holds the same type of office, from the same Republican Party, from the same state. McConnell was an intern of Coopers in his early days climbing the political ladder, and knew Cooper not just as a politician, but as a man.
He was my hero, said McConnell. In all my years of public life, theres been no one from whom Ive learned more.
Its fitting, then, that McConnell be a return visitor to the John Sherman Cooper Lecture Series, held by Somerset Community College. McConnell was the series first speaker, and did so again on Tuesday at the 11th annual event, which saw a capacity crowd at Meece Auditorium on the north campus of SCC.
McConnell, the current Senate Majority Leader following Republican victories last November flanked on the SCC stage by the colleges president and CEO, Dr. Jo Marshall, and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers from Somerset shared with the crowd both the accomplishments and the secrets of success enjoyed by Cooper, who served in the U.S. Senate off and on from in 1946 to 1973. Born here in Somerset, Cooper first rose to prominence as an attorney, then became the seventh member of his family to serve as county judge.
Thats before Cooper became the global Kentuckian as McConnell noted, U.S. ambassador to India and East Germany a simple man from Somerset who came to be known and respected around the world.
Coopers work helping those who had little money and plenty of troubles as a legal leader here in Pulaski County helped shape his political outlook, as he helped personally feed and clothe and provide lodging and medical care for those who lacked such things.
Cooper regularly encountered impoverished constituents who needed help and had nowhere else to turn, noted McConnell. Coopers generosity of spirit knew no bounds. ... The strain of trying to help so many in so much need was exhausting. As a result, he suffered a serious prolonged bout of depression. Characteristically, however, he persevered.
Cooper joined the U.S. Army in 1941 to participate in World War II, where he undertook a variety of sensitive missions in four years. One exotic-sounding effort involved trying to locate a missing Italian princess. This quest had no storybook ending, however; Cooper later learned she had perished in an air attack, and Cooper would witness humanity at its very worst when the search took him to the infamous Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. There he went and saw firsthand the unspeakable images of the Holocaust. ... It was a moment seared into Coopers memory forever.
Coopers career in the U.S. Senate got off to a complicated start, as three times he was elected to fulfill an unexpired term first in 1946 to replace A.B. Happy Chandler, who had left to become Major League Baseballs commissioner, then again following Sen. Virgil Chapmans death in 1951, and once more to replace Alben Barkley. This last time, he served from 1956 up to his retirement 16 years later, winning his last election in 1966 by a considerable margin.
He had at last found his footing, said McConnell. ... John Sherman Cooper was a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. So the question is, how did he do it?
McConnell gave credit to Coopers prominent family and his wife Lorraine, a hostess extraordinaire. But it was the senators own personal marks of character that made him such a formidable political titan even though he'd likely be the last person to say that.
His style on the stump was unconventional, in part because it reflected another important and endearing Cooper trait: modesty, said McConnell. ... Coopers speeches were not fire and brimstone, but rather candor and humility.
He extended this softness of spirit across the aisle, becoming known as a championship of bipartisan cooperation. He even struck up a close friendship with President John F. Kennedy, despite their differences in age and party affiliation, and became a trusted resource for the president.
If Coopers unconventional style frustrated many Democrats, his voting record frustrated many conservatives, said McConnell. Both sides still voted for him in droves.
This involved opposing Sen. Joseph McCarthys heavy-handed tactics in attempting to root out communists in the 1950s, noted McConnell, and being an early and vigorous supporter of civil rights legislation at a time when that cause was not a popular one. McConnell knew that well from being a young intern sorting through the senators angry mail from numerous Kentuckians on the matter, though Cooper was undeterred and stated that he didnt just represent Kentucky, he represented the nation.
McConnell said two types of people entered the political arena those who wanted to make a point, and those who wanted to make a difference. Cooper always wanted to make a difference, he said.
Ive witnessed a number of promising careers get derailed by endlessly trying to settle scores, he added. Cooper realized that you need to be able to work with others. ... Theres no use in holding grudges or burning bridges. To that end, Cooper was the consummate bridge builder.
McConnell said it was in foreign affairs where Cooper left perhaps his greatest mark, earning the trust of the leaders of India and venturing into volatile East Germany during the Cold War.
He was fundamentally a decent person who treated all with respect, said McConnell.
The John Sherman Cooper Lecture series event which featured Sen. McConnell and also included introductory words from Rogers is one of numerous special events Somerset Community College is holding to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. With a special fund set up in Coopers name at the college and the legacy he left behind for many aspiring young people in this community even if they only know him from his statue on the fountain square the Cooper Lecture Series has become an important tradition at SCC.
Cooper was everything you would want in a public servant, said McConnell, ... a man we can all rightly be proud to call our own.
|Above: U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell with WWII U.S. Army veteran Russell Wall of Casey County, age 90. According to his family, who also attended the event, Wall wanted to hear both Representative Harold Hal Rogers and Senator McConnell at the event. Hes very patriotic, said Walls family.|
|Above: U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (center) with Somerset Community College student ambassadors (from left) Justin Yazza (Pulaski County), a veteran who also led the Pledge of Allegiance at the event, Caitlyn Huff (Pulaski County), Berniece Combs (Laurel County), and Teia Daniel (Casey County).|