ATLANTA (AP) — Sen. Paul Coverdell's death came at the height of his quick rise to Republican leadership, just days before a national convention that was to bear the imprint of his tireless work in Congress.
The longtime Georgia politician died Tuesday of a stroke. He was 61.
Coverdell, who had reported no serious health problems in the past, was hospitalized Saturday after complaining of severe headaches. He had surgery Monday to relieve pressure from a cerebral hemorrhage but died from swelling in the brain, Piedmont Hospital said.
"Paul Coverdell was one of the kindest and most decent men I met in my entire life," said former President George Bush, who appointed Coverdell director of the Peace Corps in 1989, a position he held until 1991. "We shall miss him as we would miss our own son."
Coverdell signed on early as Senate liaison to Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign and was busy days before his death preparing for the Republican National Convention that begins in Philadelphia in two weeks.
"Paul's soft-spoken, hard-working ways will be sorely missed by all of us who knew him and loved him," Bush added.
Coverdell 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.
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.
He was a close ally of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who affectionately called him "Mikey," handing unglamorous tasks or pointed media questions to Coverdell. Aides said the reference came from the 1970s TV commercial in which a boy named Mikey agrees to try Life cereal after his friends won't.
Lott, who announced Coverdell's death in the Senate, expressed his sympathy to Coverdell's widow, Nancy, his sole survivor. The couple had no children.
"Our hearts break also," Lott said, his voice choked with emotion.
Coverdell's signature issue 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 was one of Clinton's most outspoken critics in the Senate, both on domestic and foreign policy issues.
In a statement Tuesday night, Clinton honored Coverdell "for his years of service as a solider, a public servant, and a statesman."
"Paul Coverdell spent a lifetime serving the people of Georgia and our country," Clinton said. "He was a tireless advocate who worked to ensure that all children have access to quality education."
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 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. 20, 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 their Atlanta insurance and financial services business, Coverdell & Co.
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.