Thad Cochran’s Personal Life: Off Limits, Or Fair Game?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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A Mississippi conservative activist and blogger named Clayton Kelly is in hot water for allegedly “sneaking into a nursing home where U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s wife is bedridden and photographing her, then posting the image in a video political ‘hit piece’ on the internet.”

This, I think we’d agree, is pretty sleazy stuff. But of all the ways to work against an incumbent, why would he do this? I mean, there must be some back story — some reason that these pictures would fit some larger narrative, right?

RedState’s Erick Erickson puts it in context:

It is an open secret in Mississippi that Thad Cochran’s wife is in a nursing home. I have known it for some time, which is why RedState has not pushed the story about Cochran’s relationship with Kay Webber. Cochran lives with Mrs. Webber, she travels with him socially and professionally, etc. In fact, if you google for Thad Cochran and his wife, the images that come up are of Thad Cochran and Mrs. Webber.

It is a tragic story, given Mrs. Cochran’s health. She suffers from dementia and has been confined to a nursing home for years. In the past two weeks though, a number of bloggers have tried to raise the red flag on Thad Cochran’s relationship with Mrs. Webber since they live together and she is also on his payroll. We have done our best to avoid delving into this story other than acknowledging its existence. It is, again, a tragic situation.

I suppose there’s no sense avoiding it now? Indeed, conservative outlets have been hinting at this recently.

For example, you can see this line of attack developing in this Breitbart piece:

Cochran is married to Rose Cochran, who resides at a retirement home in Madison, MS. According to the Madison County Journal, she suffers from severe dementia. A Dec. 18, 2002 article reported that Rose Cochran had been a resident of St. Catherine’s Village in Madison for two years.

When asked, Russell said any questions about a personal relationship between Cochran and Webber is “silly gossip.”

These types of stories rarely just happen organically. My guess is this is less the work of an intrepid reporter, and more the work of someone pushing opposition research against Cochran.

That’s not to say Chris McDaniel’s campaign ordered the hit, or even knew about it, until after the fact. It’s entirely possible Kelly was freelancing the nursing home part.

But this context explains the political environment — and what Kelly was at least trying to accomplish.

And, in fact, he actually might have met his objective.

If his goal were to create a permission structure whereby we would now have an excuse to talk about the elephant on the room — the alleged affair — then mission accomplished!

This ugly incident raises several larger issues. The first, of course, is — assuming the allegations against Cochran are all true — should that disqualify him from re-election? Here, I think it really depends on how one sees this (and it’s pretty obvious that someone handicapped by partisan blinders would view this in the least favorable terms possible).

It seems to be established fact that Cochran’s wife suffers from progressive dementia. Presumably, she is being well taken care of; that’s not an issue. So an obvious question is: Should Cochran be physically by her side — even though she would probably have no idea who he is, or that he was even there — or is everyone better served if he focuses on his work in the U.S. Senate?

Faced with two bad choices, which is nobler? Is this selfishness, or self-preservation? Is this cowardly, or an example of someone using his limited time on earth to be productive?

These questions are above my pay grade. I don’t pretend to know what his wife would want, or what is better for him. This is one of those There but for the grace of God go I sort of things. Hopefully, you and I will never have to make this sort of decision, so second-guessing someone else’s decision seems presumptuous.

For what it’s worth, the woman he is allegedly involved with has, according to Breitbart, worked for Cochran for 33 years, which implies to me that they may have a very real and deep relationship. (A quick look at this picture makes it clear this isn’t some 32-year old staffer he’s allegedly stepping out with.) The fact that she’s on the payroll, of course, adds another wrinkle to this all.

At the risk of sounding morally relativistic, this isn’t exactly a black and white situation — unless, of course, you’re someone trying to oust Cochran from his seat, in which case this all looks utterly corrupt. So I think there’s an understanding and gracious way of looking at this — and there is a less forgiving way. And, to be honest, I’m not sure which one is correct.

But what I do know is that all is fair in love and war, and when we make political campaigns into a type of war, it leads to logical conclusions. And I also know that young reporters and bloggers looking to break a story — and young political operatives, hoping to be “the next Lee Atwater” — can easily get swept up in a sort of quixotic passion which clouds reality, leading them to do things they might later regret.

Even assuming Cochran is a bad guy, exploiting his wife for political purposes, at best, requires an ends justify the means mentality.

Quite tellingly, this almost immediately reminded me of the second season of the Netflix series House of Cards. First, there was Jackie Sharp, Frank Underwood’s successor as Whip, who rose to that position by virtue of releasing a story about her mentor’s illegitimate daughter with cerebral palsy (he had been paying for her care, though his family was unaware). There was also the example of Underwood trying to buy off liberal Rep. Donald Blythe (Underwood knew his wife had Alzheimer’s, and tried to exploit this by offering to help fund research in exchange for his vote).

Not perfectly analogous, to be sure. But life, as they say, can imitate art.

Could these shows be sending the wrong message to impressionable and ambitious young pols? Who knows what influenced this alleged act, but I do know this: Unless tempered by compassion and a strong moral code, something like sneaking into a nursing home can be viewed as daring and courageous — a way to become famous (Hunter S. Thompson would do it!).

Sadly, the criteria for whether or not something like this is deemed acceptable often depends on whether or not the scheme works. In this case, the alleged perp got caught, though it’s not yet clear whether or not his goal was accomplished –I’m writing about the alleged affair, aren’t I? — or if it will backfire, ironically helping Cochran.

And so, it all comes down to perception. Should we cast stones at Cochran, or have mercy for a man whose wife is sick? Should we cast stones at Kelly, or have mercy on a young blogger who got swept up in the maelstrom of political war?

Where you stand, I suppose, depends on where you sit.