Sen. Paul Coverdell, a congressional workhorse who quickly ascended to a leadership post and served as the Senate point man for longtime friend George W. Bush, died today. He was 61.
Coverdell had surgery Monday to relieve pressure from a cerebral hemorrhage but died from swelling in the brain, according to Atlanta’s Piedmont Hospital. The senator, who had reported no serious health problems in the past, was hospitalized Saturday night after complaining of severe headaches.
Coverdell, who served as Peace Corps director in the Bush administration, was first elected to the Senate in 1992 by defeating incumbent Democrat Wyche Fowler Jr.
He became the fourth-leading Republican in the Senate, serving as GOP Conference secretary and sitting on several committees, including agriculture, finance and foreign relations.
Behind-the-Scenes Liaison He also was the Senate liaison for Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s presidential campaign and had been busy preparing for the Republican National Convention, which begins in Philadelphia in two weeks.
“Paul Coverdell was one of the kindest and most decent men I met in my entire life,” former President Bush said in a statement. “We shall miss him as we would miss our own son.”
Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, has the option of appointing a successor to serve until a special election in November. The last senator to die in office was Rhode Island Republican John Chafee, who died from heart failure last October.
Coverdell built a reputation as an effective, behind-the-scenes operative for Senate Republicans, working long hours to organize his colleagues into a unified voice.
‘Mikey’ Remembered He became a close ally of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who affectionately referred to him as “Mikey,” handling unglamorous tasks or pointed media questions to Coverdell with the comment, “That’s a job for Mikey.”
Aides said the reference came from the 1970s TV commercial for Life cereal in which a pudgy boy named Mikey agrees to try the cereal, even though his friends wouldn’t because “it’s s’posed to be good for you.”
Lott, who announced Coverdell’s death in the Senate, expressed his sympathy to Coverdell’s widow, and with his voiced choked with emotion, he added, “Our hearts break also.”
Republican Architect Coverdell’s signature issue in the Senate for the past four years was education, specifically his proposal to expand higher education savings accounts to allow tax-free withdrawals for school expenses from kindergarten through high school.
President Clinton vetoed the measure in 1998, and forced Republicans to pull it from a year-end budget bill in 1997 under threat of a veto. The president maintained that the measure would hurt public schools and benefit only wealthy families. Coverdell had been pushing the legislation again this year.
Coverdell also was one of Clinton’s most outspoken critics in the Senate, both on domestic and foreign policy issues.
Coverdell and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were the architects of the modern Republican Party in Georgia. During 16 years in the Georgia Senate, Coverdell was the best known GOP office holder in a state that was dominated from top to bottom by Democrats.
His party-building efforts paid off in 1998, when Coverdell became the first Republican to win re-election to the Senate from Georgia since Reconstruction.
Coverdell was born Jan. 29, 1939, in Des Moines, Iowa, and received a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1961 from the University of Missouri.
He served two years in the Army in Okinawa, Korea and Taiwan before helping his parents start the family’s Atlanta insurance and financial services business, Coverdell & Co.
He was married to the former Nancy Nally of Sandy Springs, Ga. They had no children.