So Maybe He Made an Honest Woman of Her
Last Saturday in Gulfport, MS, 77 year old widower Senator Thad Cochran married his long time staff member 76 year old Kay Webber. Cochran's first wife, Rose, died last December in a nursing home at age 73 after suffering from dementia for 13 years. Usually the story of a Senator, who is a widower, remarrying would get little attention, and he would be congratulated.
However, last year's Mississippi Republican Primary race between Cochran and state Senator Chris McDaniel was a nasty one - though nowhere near as nasty as the 1983 race between Leon Bramlett and Bill Allain. Cochran's bedridden wife and his relationship to his staffer became issues in the primary. Mr. Cochran was accused of carrying on a long time affair with the woman from whom he also rented a basement apartment in Washington. During the primary season a McDaniel supporter and blogger went into the nursing home where Mrs. Cochran was a patient and took pictures of her which he then posted with the hopes that voters who saw Mrs. Cochran in her pitiable condition would think the worse of Cochran who was "carrying on" with another woman in D.C.. The blogger goes to trial next month. The Cochran campaign vehemently denied that there was anything improper in the Senator's relationship with Ms. Webber. The McDaniel campaign claimed to know nothing of the blogger and to rise above insinuating anything about an improper relationship on Senator Cochran's part, but, of course, that did not prevent his supporters from making insinuations, sometimes with crude language.
Whether this incident had any influence on the primary election is not known, but McDaniel, who accused Cochran of being not a "real conservative" and of being a part of the "Republican establishment," held a narrow lead over Cochran in the first primary, though he did not gain the majority necessary to avoid a second primary. At that point Haley Barbour, whom McDaniel considers the head of a corrupt Mississippi political machine, pulled out all the stops, part of which was an appeal to black Democrats to vote in the Republican (there is no party registration in MS) primary for Cochran who would would be more favorable to their interests than McDaniel. Cochran won by about 7,000 votes and went on to defeat his Democrat opponent with 60% of the vote. However, after the second primary, McDaniel filed an election challenge and followed with a lawsuit, neither of which resulted in overturning the primary results. McDaniel never conceded the win to Cochran, and to this day he and his most dedicated supporters are bitter and accuse Cochran of being corrupt, a liar, a cheat, and a race-baiter.
Now Cochran's marriage is taken as proof he is a liar who denied he was carrying on an affair while his wife was still alive but during the campaign denied it. I wonder if his not marrying her would have been proof he was not guilty of adultery. Be that as it may...
If there was an affair, and Cochran was living with Ms. Webber in more than the sense of living in space in her basement, then is it a good thing that he, as my parents would have put it, "made an honest woman out of her." When my Dad was sick, one of my uncles came to see him. As he was leaving my uncle told my Dad that he was going to marry his girlfriend. My Dad replied, "Good. I'm glad you're going to make an honest woman of her." That now (for many reasons) out of date phrase meant that instead of living with a woman or otherwise having an ongoing conjugal relationship with a woman to whom you are not married, you "regularized" the relationship by marrying her. It makes the unofficial but not binding relationship official and as binding as any other marriage in these days of easy divorce. Even if you're guilty of continuing adultery, it is better to marry than not to marry.
If Cochran was having a long term affair and felt he needed first to deny it and later to marry the person, that is evidence there is still a a vestige at least in some places of the morality behind the old saying that "hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue." It assumes that there is virtue and that in some sense it is normative. There are people who know what virtue is but do not live according to its standards. They prefer their vices(s) to virtue, but, because virtue is normative, they pretend to be virtuous and to act virtuously. There is no longer as much necessity for traditional vices to pay homage to traditional virtues. Virtues and vices remain, and there's still a role for hypocrisy, but the hierarchy of virtues is different and the list of virtues has changed. Some definitions of virtue have been stood on their heads. Put contraceptives on a prominent aisle of the store and sell them to all, but put the the cigarettes behind the counter and the beer in a case and demand proof age to purchase. Smoke a joint in the city park, but smoke tobacco in isolation from all virtuous mankind. Marry, shack up with, or have a one night stand with whomever you like, but, if you disapprove of any sexual arrangements and practices, keep it to yourself. Of the old sexual codes little remains except for the ban on child molestation. The greatest virtue of all is tolerance unless you are denouncing what you see as the intolerance of others. Many churches are from indifferent to totally supportive of your personal freedom in all matters sexual. That does not mean society no longer has virtues and vices or that there is no longer any need for hypocrisy. If you believe in heterosexual marriage, be careful to whom you say so. If you smoke tobacco, try not to be seen by anyone except those who share your vice.
There are those who have said that, when his wife was diagnosed with dementia, Senator Cochran should have retired from the Senate and devoted himself to her care. I have both known of and known men who have done that. But then one wonders what wishes Mrs. Cochran made known before she became too ill to communicate her wishes. Perhaps she told her husband that she definitely did not want him to give up his Senate seat. Those are conversations to which none of us are privy, and we do best not to judge the decisions of others when we do not have such information.
Moreover, unless we have witnessed dementia firsthand in the life of a person with whom we have had an intimate relationship, we may not know what we are talking about when we make our judgments in the abstract. Demented persons are not just weak and frail and needing medical care and spiritual and emotional support from loved ones. They are changed, sometimes radically so. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's husband was placed in residential care because of his Alzheimer's. There, no longer aware who Ms. O'Connor was or that he was married, he developed a romantic relationship with another resident. Even, if that sort of thing is rare, patients come to the point of not knowing a spouse, children, or friends. Not only is the person not capable of giving in a relationship; he or she is not capable of receiving. There is not the comfort on the part of the sufferer of knowing a person is there who loves you and is committed to you in sickness as in health, because you don't know who that person is.
Losing a relationship with a spouse who suffers dementia is worse than losing that relationship by death. When a spouse dies there is closure, support from others, and the freedom to pursue companionship with a person of the opposite sex and to marry if one wishes (and good people sometimes remarry sooner than the 6 months that elapsed between Sen. Cochran's becoming widower and his marrying again). The problem with dementia is that the person is there but not there. The person is lost but not gone. It had been a long time since Senator Cochran and his now deceased wife had a relationship of being even companions to one another. Did Senator Cochran appreciate, enjoy, and find comfort in the female companionship of his staff member? Yes. Men, I think more than women, need the companionship of the opposite sex. Did it go beyond companionship to a conjugal relationship? It may have. I don't have any evidence, and I have yet to see anyone cite evidence or witnesses of such a relationship. If anyone other than the Senator and his now wife knows, they are not saying. If it did become a conjugal relationship, then the Senator and his companion succumbed to temptation, which is sin. It is not an example to be followed, but it is also not a case to be met by us with a "God I thank thee that I am not like Senator Cochran" attitude.
To those who were sure already that Senator Cochran is the worst sort of human his marriage to his staffer confirmed and added to their already negative judgments. One of most oft repeated accusations Cochran detractors have made is that he is senile, can't carry a conversation, doesn't know how to get from here to there. If that is the case, you'd think they might have a little understanding and show a little compassion.
But then the Pharisee, the priest, and the Levite are too much with us - each of us. We're pretty confident we better pass by on the other side lest we contract defilement or that we have the standing to pick up the first stone.