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The Political Acrobatics Of Cheerleading

Cheering, Politics Require ‘All the Right Moves’

“Hoddy toddy, gosh almighty, who the hell are we? Hey! Flim, flam, bim, bam, Ole Miss by damn!”

More than 50 years have passed since Sen. Thad Cochran cheered on his college football team, but the Mississippi Republican hasn’t forgotten the lessons he learned on the sidelines. 

Cochran cheered his way through his freshman and sophomore years at the University of Mississippi -— but according to him, the position was more political than athletic. In his time, the campus voted by secret ballot to elect their cheerleaders.

“I got talked into it by my fraternity,” he remembered. “It was like an election. The students voted on the candidates.” 

He had some doubts at first, much as he did during his first campaign for office in 1972, when he worried that he might actually get elected, he said. When Cochran, a high school football star, ran for cheerleader in college, he was nervous that his friends back home might not understand his decision. 

“I remember thinking, I don’t think this will go over big in my hometown,” he said. “Everybody was surprised. But they said, ‘Well, that’s more like a political thing. You’ll probably end up being a student body officer if your name is well-known on campus and they find out you’re also a normal person in every way.’”

Just as he did for Congress, Cochran campaigned for cheerleader at Ole Miss. He refers to cheerleading as the “first serious political experience” of his life. 

“You had to go around to the different residence houses and fraternity and sorority houses and campaign, answer questions and make a little speech about why you thought you’d be a good cheerleader,” he said. 

Cochran’s not the only politician who got his start in cheerleading. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush all cheered in high school or college. So did Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who cheered for Ole Miss a few years after Cochran. 

However political it is in nature, cheerleading still requires a great deal of enthusiasm and acrobatics. 

“You’re out there on the sidelines with the other cheerleaders. You learn the cheers and practice,” he said. “We weren’t very good at tumbling and all the acrobatics you see now, but we did a few little simple things and it made everybody laugh. We were part of the entertainment.” 

The skills required? “A high level of energy and learning all the right moves,” he said. 

But the job wasn’t easy. Cochran struggled a little with the acrobatics and tumbling, so his fellow cheerleaders elected him head cheerleader during his second year, he said. That way, he could direct them through the megaphone rather than dive over the pyramid. 

“I found out very quickly that I was not an acrobat,” he said. “Getting up the next day was the hardest part. And trying to walk, particularly in the early part of the season, you weren’t in shape. You do a lot of jumping around and knee bends.”

Still, he loved the experience. He said he relished cheering for a competitive football team and enjoyed traveling alongside his team. One of the greatest highlights was a trip to the Sugar Bowl. 

After a two-year stint in cheerleading, Cochran decided to put his name recognition to good use. He ran for vice president of the student body, a position that also served as the president of the Campus Senate.

There, he took up controversial issues, working to lengthen visiting hours for the women’s dorms. (“They were very restricted, the women,” he said.)

That was the last elected position for which he ran until 1972, when he ran for Congress.

“I’ve been here ever since, all because I agreed to be a freshman cheerleader,” he said.