July 27, 2000: Paul Coverdell Will Be Missed

I don’t know what I can say about Paul Coverdell that hasn’t already been said except that I think he would be embarrassed by all the attention.  Without question, he had the smallest ego of any politician I have ever been around.

I got to know him well during my days at the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.  One of my responsibilities was dealing with the federal government.  The mantra in getting the Games to Atlanta was “no government funding.”  That meant that we would stage the Olympic Games with private dollars but, in fact, we needed a lot of government support “outside the fence.”  I was charged with getting the federal government to help us with security, transportation, housing, entry into and out of the country for some 15,000 athletes and officials from 197 countries, advanced weather forecasting and a myriad of other requests.

It wasn’t an easy job by any measure but it could have been worse.  The Clinton administration was anxious for good Games as they went into their reelection campaign, feeling a happy populace would likely vote for the status quo.  The Speaker of the House was a Georgian who couldn’t agree with the president on the time of day but Newt Gingrich managed to put aside his differences with the White House on our behalf. With security our biggest need, we were fortunate to have Georgia Senator Sam Nunn to make our case in Congress and in the Department of Defense for the necessary personnel and materials.

And then there was Paul Coverdell.  Without him, I don’t know what we would have done.

Our chief critic was John McCain, the senator from Arizona.  All the stories you have heard about his temper are not exaggerated.  McCain had been infuriated a couple of years earlier when the World Cup was held in Los Angeles and the governing body had secured $50 million in government support.  The games were a resounding financial success and the organizers celebrated by paying themselves huge bonuses and crediting the government’s contributions for their personal good fortune.  McCain went into orbit.  Never again, he vowed, would the government provide support to such activities without getting reimbursed.

As luck would have it, we were next up and he decided to take out his World Cup frustrations on us.  McCain constantly made serious, unsubstantiated and untrule charges about us.charges about us constantly.  His accusations weren’t true but that didn’t stop him from trying.

The only person able to deal with McCain was Coverdell.  The Georgia senator’s  kind and patient demeanor belied an underlying toughness to take the  intemperate McCain.  But before bearding the lion, Coverdell would call us to his office to assure him that we were on track with our planning.  His questioning was like that of a kind but stern schoolteacher.  If you didn’t have the answer, you had better go find it quickly.   Once he was satisfied that we knew what we were talking about and he agreed with our approach, he would successfully face down McCain.  How he did it, I’m not sure because I heard other senators express total frustration in trying to reason with the ill-tempered iconoclast.  But McCain never bucked Coverdell.

As a result of being around Coverdell during and after the Games, my respect for him continued to grow.  I called him the “stealth senator.”  He wasn’t one to seek out sound bites and to appear on C-Span talking to an empty room.  He preferred to know issues in great depth and then to quietly and effectively work behind the scenes to get things accomplished.  He seemed to operate on the biblical injunction, “By his good works shall you know him.”  The Senate noticed.  In his short time in Washington, he quickly moved up the ranks in the Republican leadership and was a close confidante of George W. Bush.

Coverdell was a rather formal man.  I once invited him to attend the pre-Olympic diving competition.  It must have been a hundred degrees.  He showed up in a black pinstripe suit with shirt and tie and stayed through the whole competition without breaking a sweat.

I will truly miss this good man and our state will, too.  I knew how much he was doing for us.  It took his untimely death for everybody else to appreciate him.