ATLANTA -- 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 of complications from a stroke Tuesday. He was 61.
Coverdell, who had reported no serious health problems in the past, was hospitalized Saturday night after complaining of severe headaches. Doctors operated on him Monday, attempting to relieve pressure on his brain from a cerebral hemorrhage.
His death, at 6:10 p.m., was caused by uncontrollable swelling in the brain that "caused pressure on vital areas regulating consciousness, breathing, pulse and blood pressure," a hospital statement said.
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.
"Paul Coverdell was one of the kindest and most decent men I met in my entire life," former President George Bush said in a statement. "We shall miss him as we would miss our own son."
Within an hour, Coverdell's death was announced in the Senate by Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. Lott expressed his sympathy to Coverdell's widow and, voiced choked with emotion, added, "our hearts break also."
Senate leaders had evidently known for some time that Coverdell's death was imminent. Moments after Lott completed his announcement, he forwarded a formal resolution praising Coverdell for having served "all the people of the United States."
Coverdell was the fourth-leading Republican in the Senate, serving as GOP Conference secretary and sitting on several committees, including agriculture, finance and foreign relations.
He also was the Senate liaison for Bush's presidential campaign and had been busy preparing for the Republican National Convention, which begins in Philadelphia in two weeks.
Georgia Republican Chairman Chuck Clay said Coverdell's death "is a loss for Georgia and, at a human level, my heart goes out to Nancy and the Coverdell family. As a friend, I am terribly saddened at the loss of a peer, a friend, a mentor and a truly great leader."
Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, has the option of appointing a successor to serve until a special election, which would coincide with the November general election.
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.
Lott affectionately referred to him as "Mikey," handing the unglamorous tasks or pointed media questions to Coverdell with the comment, "That's a job for Mikey."
Aides said the reference came from a 1970s TV commercial for Life cereal. In it, a pudgy boy named Mikey agrees to try the cereal, even though his friends wouldn't because "it's sposed to be good for you."
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.
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's relationship with the Bush family dated back three decades. He first met former President Bush in the 1970s when he was in the Georgia Senate and Bush was ambassador to the United Nations. When Bush ran for president in 1980, Coverdell was his finance chairman in Georgia.
Eight years later, Coverdell served as Bush's Southern steering committee chairman. Once Bush was in the White House, he tapped Coverdell to head the Peace Corps.
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.
In 1998, Coverdell became the first Republican to win re-election to the Senate from Georgia since Reconstruction. Republicans and Democrats had traded the seat he held every six years since former Sen. Mack Mattingly became Georgia's first GOP senator this century in 1980.
Coverdell played a key role in mobilizing GOP opposition to Clinton's health care reform initiative in 1993. Emboldened by that success, he became one of Clinton's most outspoken critics in the Senate, both on domestic and foreign policy issues.
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 returning and 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. They had no children.