The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thad Cochran’s new marriage — and why our politics stink

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) speaks to supporters following his victory over Democrat Travis Childers and Reform Party candidate Shawn O'Hara, at his victory party in Jackson, Miss. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
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Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran (R) got married to a longtime staffer over the weekend, a year after his staff vehemently denied that the two had any sort of intimate relationship.

So. Either (a) the two began a relationship after Cochran's wife died in December 2014 following a long battle with dementia or (b) Cochran's staff was lying about the relationship between him and Kay Webber for fear of admitting an extramarital affair during the heat of a contested primary fight.

The one-line statement released by Cochran's office didn't get into the timing of their relationship. But a few facts shed some light on things. First, Webber has been on Cochran's staff since 1981 and, according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, she accompanied Cochran on more than 30 publicly funded international trips over the past 12 years. Second, Cochran's wife, Rose, had been in a nursing home for the past 13 years of her life.

Common sense would dictate that sometime over the past decade or so, as his wife slipped further into dementia, Cochran and Webber became something more than just professional acquaintances. To which I say: Who cares?

To me, that Cochran's office felt the need to, at best, obfuscate on the true nature of his relationship with Webber speaks to what's wrong with our politics -- namely an inability (or unwillingness) to put ourselves in the shoes of the people we elect to represent us.

Let's go back to the spring of 2014. Cochran was in the midst of a fight for his political life against state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who had cast the incumbent as both too moderate and too "Washington" to be elected to a seventh term. Then, supporters of McDaniel's -- although he denied any knowledge of their efforts -- sneaked into Rose Cochran's nursing home and took footage of her -- presumably to make the case, which was being whispered about, that Cochran was in a relationship with Webber even as his wife lay infirm. (Worth noting: Before the nursing home incident, no reporters for credible news organizations wrote about the whispers about Cochran and Webber.)

The case, which drew massive national attention, brought a bright focus on Cochran's personal life at a time when he badly needed to convince the most conservative elements of the Republican Party that he was one of them. Hence, the denial of any relationship beyond a professional one with Webber. (Cochran went on to win a stunning come-from-behind runoff victory over McDaniel, although how much of that had to do with his wife and/or Webber is impossible to know.)

I get it. I just wish it weren't so. Put yourself in Cochran's shoes. His wife is fading from him -- or totally gone.  He wants someone to share his life with. He has known Webber for a long time. They are contemporaries; he is 77, she is 76. Should anyone begrudge him that chance at happiness -- even if he happens to be a well-known politician?

I say no. It's clear, however, that Cochran -- or at least the political people around him -- thought that acknowledging his relationship with Webber carried serious negative political consequences that they weren't willing to deal with. Lying about a relationship is bad. It's worse that they felt compelled to do it.

That's unfortunate. Politicians are, after all, people too. Maybe if we remembered that fact, we'd have more politicians that acted like, you know, normal humans.