Remembering Sen. Marlow Cook: One of Kentucky's last moderate Republicans

MAR 26 1972, MAR 27 1972; Sen. Marlow Cook, R-KY., Leaves Hospital after Hearing Ends;  (Photo By David Cupp/The Denver Post
MAR 26 1972, MAR 27 1972; Sen. Marlow Cook, R-KY., Leaves Hospital after Hearing Ends; (Photo By David Cupp/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Marlow W. Cook first flashed across the horizon of Louisville and Jefferson County a little more than a half-century ago, full of ideas, enthusiasm and youthful energy. He brought something that our city, then the nation's 31th largest, needed badly: A vision for the future that would position metro Louisville for the 21st Century.

Cook, at the age of 36, was leader of a reform political ticket, along with William O. Cowger and E.P. "Tom" Sawyer, who (like John F. Kennedy on the national level) wanted to get Louisville "moving again." That Cowger, Cook, Sawyer and others were Republicans and Kennedy was a Democrat didn't make much difference. In those days, ideology wasn't so important. Ideas were.

In the old City of Louisville, if you were a Democrat you were far more likely to be resistant to the wave of civil rights reform in the form of demonstrations and calls for changes in the Jim Crow laws that still gripped most of the South. In 1963, Louisville, under the Republican leadership of Cook, Cowger, Sawyer, former State Rep. Henry R. Heyburn and others, became the first big city south of the Mason-Dixon Line to pass a public accommodations law, providing an example to Congress (then struggling with similar federal legislation) and the rest of America that this could be done peacefully. (The offspring of some of those leaders have gone on to leadership in my generation, including Tom Sawyer's daughter, the network news superstar Diane Sawyer; Henry Heyburn's son John, who became a leading federal judge in the field of civil rights; and Bill Cowger's daughter, Ceci, who stood with black veterans of the civil rights era when memorials honoring the movement were erected a few years ago.)

Not everything Marlow Cook, who died this week at 89, did was serious. He had a great sense of fun. For instance, there was the occasion when he heard that an old steamboat, the Avalon, was for sale. An adopted Louisvillian -- he had moved here as a teenager from upstate New York -- Cook shared a vision for the potential rebirth of the riverfront (at a time when Interstate 64 was being built right along the banks). With $34,000 in public money he bought the old boat, rechristened it the Belle of Louisville, and then raised the money to restore and improve the paddlewheel. For a time, it was derided as "Marlow's Folly." Today, it's impossible to picture our city without the Belle, surely one of our iconic images.

The final, lasting achieve of the Cowger-Cook era was passage of a bond issue in 1965 that paved the way for a long list of future improvements to the community that included expansions at the University of Louisville, then still a semi-private municipal university, and the old General Hospital. It was in that period when Cook, following the lead of Louisville Courier-Journal publisher Barry Bingham, former Mayor Wilson Wyatt and others, decided that a vital step for the community's future was to merge city and county governments. That would happen more than three decades later, with Cook -- by then in retirement in Florida -- as a key supporter.

Cook was a barrier-breaker, though few remember him for that. He sought to be the first Roman Catholic elected to statewide office in the spring of 1967, when he ran in the Republican primary for governor against Barren County Judge Louie B. Nunn. I was a teenager living in Lexington during that campaign and witnessed with horror the blatant bigotry being peddled out in the state against the "big city Catholic" from Louisville. Louie Nunn barely beat Cook and went on to become the state's first Republican governor since the 1940s. A year later, Cook did make history by being elected statewide to the U.S. Senate to fill the seat held by another Republican, Thruston B. Morton, who was retiring.

In Washington, "Judge" Cook cast his lot with the progressive wing of the GOP, including Tennessee's Howard Baker, Pennsylvania's Hugh Scott, Massachusetts' Edward Brooke (the first African-American senator elected since Reconstruction), and New York's Jacob Javits. Cook was given a prestigious seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, responsible for screening federal judges, including Supreme Court justices.

If for no other reason, on April 8, 1970, Sen. Cook demonstrated a profile in courage by voting against G. Harrold Carswell, a Georgia judge nominated by President Nixon, for the Supreme Court. During the confirmation process, a long list of Carswell's racist, misogynist past was paraded before the Senate. In the end, two Republicans -- Sen. Margaret Chase Smith and Cook - were deemed crucial in the narrow vote that defeated Carswell. For his distinction, Cook earned the scorn of Richard Nixon's White House but the praise of others. The New York Times featured his photo on the front page April 9.

The early 1970s proved to be dangerous times for Republicans in Washington, especially with the paranoid, lawless Nixon administration in the White House and running the national GOP. Despite his sound record, Cook was considered vulnerable when he sought re-election in 1974, little more than two months after Nixon had been forced to resign. Indeed, Gov. Wendell Ford polled 72,000 votes more than Cook in November and went on to a long and distinguished Senate career.

Cook remained in Washington, where he became a successful attorney and spokesman for Kentucky interests. Over the years, he earned a role as a senior statesman, never again seeking public office. In time, he and his wife (whom he called "Miss Nancy") moved to Florida. He kept up with old political friends such as U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, who as a young man had worked as an aide in Cook's Senate office. He also enjoyed talking to old friends in journalism; I was always happy to hear from him.

Among the many young people he once encouraged, one came to earn his scorn: Mitch McConnell, who had worked in Cook's Washington office from 1968 to 1970, and then with Cook's blessing moved on to the attorney general's office.

McConnell was twice elected to Cook's former job -- Jefferson County judge-executive -- but when he tried to move on to Washington by opposing Democratic Sen. Walter D. Huddleston in 1984, Cook opposed McConnell. Increasingly, in the years that followed, Cook expressed concern about McConnell's sharp ideological turn to the extreme right. The young aide who had helped him advance the Equal Rights Amendment became distant from many of the principles embodied in that important piece of legislation. Cook was the Senate's leading Republican advocate of the ERA.

Then when McConnell became a fiery foe of the Affordable Care Act, Cook let him have it again in an interview with Mother Jones magazine: "If he had any knowledge of the lack of health and medical facilities in the hills of Kentucky, he'd know it's a problem we need to solve. For Mitch McConnell to decide the new health program is not good for Kentucky -- it tells me he's not looking out for his own constituency."

Cook, who had not been a great ally of Bingham's Courier-Journal, warmed up to the newspaper in my era as an editor, and he also made a point of calling in from time to time.

Perhaps my favorite moment in that period came in the early fall of 2004, when mainline Republicans of all sorts were distancing themselves from President George W. Bush, who was seeking re-election.

One morning, Cook called to chat about the race. As usual, he made inquiries about people he knew from Kentucky days, including my wife, Meme, who had grown up with his daughter, Christy. (Meme still remembers then-Judge Cook helping the girls put on productions of plays like "The Sound of Music" in the family's garage in suburban St. Matthews.) Then he got around to the point of the call. He was upset with the way Bush had conducted his first term, and he had decided that in 2004, he would vote for Democrat John Kerry. Not only did he intend to vote that way, but he wanted to share his dismay with the voters of Kentucky, hoping he might encourage a few other disenchanted Republicans to join him. The piece was published on the Forum page of The Courier-Journal:

"For me, as a Republican," Cook wrote, "I feel that when my party gives me a dangerous leader who flouts the truth, takes the country into an undeclared war and then adds a war on terrorism to it without debate by the Congress, we have a duty to rid ourselves of those who are taking our country on a perilous ride in the wrong direction."

On Thursday, Yarmuth told me that his conversations with Cook continued until four or five months ago. He was "still sharp" at 89, Yarmuth recalled.

"After he left Washington, there's no question that the Republican Party moved way too far to the right for him. I know he felt more comfortable with the policies that most would call liberal today," said Yarmuth.

"Whenever I spoke to him in recent years, he was consistently supporting Democrats over Republicans, at least on the federal level."

Tributes to Marlow Cook in his hometown and state never came his way during his lifetime. It's long overdue for something of note to be named for this remarkable man, who bucked politics and party to do what he thought was right. That it was right, so often, is something we can admire - and wish that more politicians today would strive to emulate.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor of The Courier-Journal.