Mitch McConnell’s Mentor

Marlow Cook (left) and Mitch McConnell (right)

On July 27, 2015, Vice President Joe Biden called a former senator to wish him a happy birthday, one that would be his last. Although Marlow Webster Cook (1926-2016) only served with Biden for two years in the Senate, the man made such a good impression on him as to warrant birthday phone calls. He also mentored Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative John Yarmuth (a Rockefeller Republican at the time, but now a staunchly liberal Democrat) who served as his aides.

In 1962, Cook was elected Jefferson County Judge (equivalent to County Executive) in an election that brought Republicans to power on a reform ticket. Part of this reform was making the city the first major one to have a public accommodations law south of the Mason-Dixon line. The Republicans elected on the reform ticket were not die-hard conservatives, rather moderate to moderate conservative. In 1967, he ran for the Republican nomination for Kentucky governor, but narrowly lost to the more conservative Barren County Judge Louie B. Nunn, whose campaign negatively capitalized on Cook’s Catholicism. He would, however, secure the endorsement of Republican Senator Thruston B. Morton to succeed him to public office and won in 1968 by nearly four points. Cook had campaigned for an escalation in the Vietnam War to win the votes of Wallace Democrats and he was in his victory the first Catholic to win an election statewide.

Although he had postured to the right for the Senate, he proved a moderate, especially in his first two years. Cook backed social welfare measures that the conservative wing opposed, such as food stamp expansion and enhanced unemployment insurance legislation. He also took a moderate course on busing, embracing a 1969 compromise on the subject whilst voting a preference to limit the practice. In 1969, Cook led the support for President Nixon’s nomination of Clement Haynsworth Jr. to the Supreme Court and defended him against claims of impropriety. However, he would join liberal Republicans in not backing Nixon’s next nominee, G. Harrold Carswell. True to his campaign message on Vietnam, he would oppose the Cooper-Church Amendment to stop funding for troops in Cambodia in 1970. However, Cook would later turn against continuing efforts in Vietnam. In 1973, he voted to override President Nixon’s veto of the War Powers Resolution.

As a senator from a tobacco producing state, he was a staunch supporter of the tobacco industry and after his time in the Senate he would represent the Tobacco Institute. In 1973, Cook voted against barring importation of Rhodesian chrome, as the only feasible substitute would be the USSR. The following year, he voted against the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. These votes were part of Cook’s usually anti-communist politics on foreign policy in his voting record, as with the latter anti-communists in the United States feared that the USSR would launch baseless claims against the US alleging genocide for propaganda purposes. Indeed, they could look back to the communist front Civil Rights Congress’ “We Charge Genocide” petition before the United Nations in December 1951, accusing the US of genocide over the treatment of American blacks by government and society.

Cook was highly popular with his colleagues and made friends with many, including as mentioned before Joe Biden. He would have easily won another term save for two things: Governor Wendell Ford was really popular and Richard Nixon was deeply unpopular in Kentucky in the wake of Watergate. Indeed, polling of the 1974 race indicated that Ford was the only Democrat who could beat Cook, and that he did by about 10 points. Cook’s MC-Index score was a 62%, indicating a moderate record. The next Republican senator from Kentucky would be none other than Mitch McConnell.

In his later years, Cook would dissent from his party on multiple notable occasions: in 1984, Cook endorsed his close friend Democrat Walter “Dee” Huddleston in his bid for reelection rather than McConnell. He likewise befriended the man who beat him, Wendell Ford. In 2004, Cook endorsed John Kerry over George W. Bush primarily over the Iraq War and in 2014, he criticized his former aide McConnell for his opposition to Obamacare, holding that McConnell should not focus on repealing Obamacare, rather on correcting flaws in the legislation (Courier Journal).

Upon Cook’s death, McConnell said of him, “Marlow Cook gave me my first real opportunity in politics, as state youth chairman for his successful Senate campaign. He gave me an important opportunity in government too, as chief legislative assistant – basically what we now call legislative director – in his Senate office. I worked there for two years. I recall that time fondly. I remain very grateful for it” (Courier Journal).


Marlow Cook, former senator, county judge, dies. (2016, February 4). The Courier-Journal.

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