John Sherman Cooper was one of the most enduring and popular public figures in Kentucky in the post World War II era and he was, of all things, a Republican. Cooper was among those titanic figures that dominated Kentucky politics for decades, including Senator and Vice President Alben Barkley and Governor and Senator Albert B. “Happy” Chandler. Both Chandler and Barkley were Democrats while John Sherman Cooper was a Republican, albeit it hardly a conservative Republican.
Cooper was born August 23, 1901 in Somerset, Kentucky. The Cooper family was locally prominent and his father, for whom he was named, was wealthy, as well as heavily involved in local politics. In fact, the elder Cooper was serving as Collector of the Internal Revenue Service by appointment of President Theodore Roosevelt when his first son was born.
John Sherman Cooper was privately tutored until the sixth grade when he entered the public school system. He would go on to attend Yale University and Harvard Law School before he returned to Kentucky. While home from Harvard, John Sherman Cooper received the distressing news his father was dying and much of the family fortune had been lost. Cooper was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives where he quickly established himself as independent-minded. That same ability to think for himself rather than hue to any party line was to be a hallmark of his entire political career and likely had much to do with his success as Cooper was the first to cheerfully admit he was a “terrible” public speaker.
Cooper left the state house to run for Pulaski County judge, defeating the incumbent. As the Great Depression drowned many in poverty like a tidal wave, Judge Cooper was faced with the responsibility for serving eviction notices on many hard-pressed constituents, a task he loathed. Cooper worked hard to find housing for those facing eviction or simply gave some money out of his own pocket, earning himself a reputation for compassion and many referred to him as “the poor man’s judge.” There is reason to believe John Sherman Cooper suffered a nervous breakdown caused by the hardship faced by so many friends and neighbors during the Depression.
In 1939, John Sherman Cooper ran for governor of Kentucky, but lost the Republican primary to another judge. Despite being well over the draft age during World War II, Cooper volunteered and entered the army as a private. He attended officer training school and found himself in Germany just after the war where he finally served as a legal adviser to those displaced by the war. In his absence, Cooper had been elected as a Circuit Judge, facing no opposition from either Republicans or Democrats, despite the fact he was unable to campaign.
Just as John Sherman Cooper returned from Europe in 1945, Senator A. B. “Happy” Chandler resigned to accept appointment as Commissioner of Baseball. Cooper entered the Senate race and was widely considered the underdog against former Congressman John Y. Brown. Brown, the father of future governor John Y. Brown, Jr., was a veteran of Kentucky’s political wars and had managed to antagonize many of former Senator Chandler’s followers. Brown had also feuded with the leaders of the Democratic machine in Louisville and lost the election by more than 40,000. John Sherman Cooper won by a greater majority than any other Republican up until that time.
1946 was a banner year for Republicans, who held majorities in both houses of Congress. Conservative Senator Robert A. Taft, unofficial leader of Republicans in the United States Senate, was soon highly irritated by John Sherman Cooper’s independent streak. Taft apparently growled at Cooper, demanding to know when the Kentuckian was going to start voting with his party in the Congress. Cooper coolly replied he would vote as he saw fit. Cooper voted only 51% of the time with Republicans in the Senate.
Having won a special election, Cooper had to face the voters again in 1948 and was opposed by Congressman Virgil Chapman. 1948 was not a Republican year and while Senator Cooper outran the rest of the Republican ticket, he lost to Chapman. Virgil Chapman only barely managed to win and had even alienated big labor by his support for the Taft-Hartley Bill. Chapman was a rotund, bald and nondescript man, albeit it pleasant. He was also a severe alcoholic and would help to revive John Sherman Cooper’s political career when he was killed in an automobile crash in 1951.
Following his defeat, President Truman appointed former Senator John Sherman Cooper as a delegate to the United Nations; later Cooper would serve as a special assistant to Secretary of State Dean Acheson. When Senator Virgil Chapman was killed in 1951, Congressman Thomas Underwood was appointed to succeed him. John Sherman Cooper seemed like the strongest candidate the Republicans could nominate and General Dwight D. Eisenhower seemed likely to run strong in Kentucky. Both Eisenhower and Cooper carried Kentucky and once again John Sherman Cooper was serving a short term in the United States Senate.
Senator Cooper could likely have been reelected in 1954, but he faced former Majority Leader of the U. S. Senate and Vice President Alben W. Barkley in the general election. Barkley was well into his seventies when he sought to return to the Senate and was still a legend inside his own state. Cooper lost to Barkley and was appointed as Ambassador to India by President Eisenhower.
John Sherman Cooper’s exile from elective politics was brief as Alben Barkley dropped dead during a speech and both of Kentucky’s Senate seats were on the ballot in 1956. Congressman Thruston Morton challenged Senator Earle B. Clements and former Senator John Sherman Cooper ran for the seat left open by Barkley’s death. President Eisenhower won Kentucky, as did Cooper and Morton.
Senator Cooper did not have to face the voters again until 1960, when he beat former Governor Keen Johnson to win his first full six-year term. John Sherman Cooper accomplished quite a feat in having the support of those voting for Vice President Richard Nixon in his contest with Senator John F. Kennedy, as well as organized labor. Cooper was supportive of President Eisenhower and while the Kentuckian was never likely considered a mainstream Republican, he remained enormously popular in Kentucky. Cooper had married a wealthy woman and was one of the few senators regularly chauffeured to work every morning. Despite his patrician background, John Sherman Cooper remained affable, frequently self-deprecating and approachable. Somewhat absent-minded, Cooper rarely spoke on the Senate floor, but he was highly respected by his colleagues and his penchant for being independent oftentimes gave his views even greater weight inside the United States Senate.
Easily reelected again in 1966, Cooper had become disillusioned with the Vietnam War. Together with liberal Idaho Senator Frank Church, the Kentuckian authored a series of amendments to defund the war. Known as the Cooper – Church amendments, Cooper had long been urging a negotiated settlement of the war. Following another tour of South Vietnam in 1966, Senator Cooper became even more firmly fixed in his opposition to the war. Cooper’s attitude towards the war did not diminish his popularity at home, as he faced his opponent from twenty years earlier, John Y. Brown, again in 1966 and won by more than 200,000 votes. Cooper carried all but 10 of Kentucky’s 120 counties in the election.
Early in 1972, Senator Cooper announced he would not seek reelection to the U. S. Senate, although he likely could have been reelected without much trouble. He was then 71 and many other senators had been reelected well past that age, but Cooper had been ill following his intense activity relating to the Vietnam War and was becoming seriously hard of hearing.
Former Governor Louie Nunn became the Republican candidate to succeed Senator Cooper and despite Richard Nixon’s overwhelming victory in Kentucky, lost to Democrat Walter “Dee” Huddleston. John Sherman Cooper retired from the Senate and joined perhaps the most prestigious law firm in Washington, D. C. Cooper’s retirement didn’t last that long as he was pressed by President Gerald Ford into serving as Ambassador to East Germany. Cooper remained as Ambassador for quite nearly two years before returning to the United States and resuming his law practice.
For the remainder of his life, John Sherman Cooper occupied the lofty position of statesman and accumulated awards and honors for his service to the country and as a member of the United States Senate. Cooper was given an award by Governor John Y. Brown, Jr., son of his former opponent in two elections. A bust of Senator Cooper was unveiled in the state Capitol in 1987 where it remains to this day.
Cooper suffered the loss of his wife Lorraine in 1985 and the couple had been favorites on the Washington social circuit for years. Cooper kept practicing law until his retirement in 1989 at age 88. Cooper lived long enough to see a screening of a pubic broadcasting documentary about his life entitled, “The Gentleman From Kentucky”.
John Sherman Cooper’s health began to fail and he became increasingly more frail and he passed away in an assisted care facility in Washington, D. C. on February 21, 1991.
The fierce independence of John Sherman Cooper likely could not have survived the bitterness and polarized politics today, but he remains a political giant, as well as a reminder of a time when politicians rendered real service to their home states and nation.