Politics & Policy

Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Part I

Yell County, Ark. — Tom Cotton is a Republican’s dream, and, for many Democrats, a nightmare. Let’s go through his bio, briefly — and at greater length later.

Born and raised in rural Arkansas. Harvard College. Harvard Law School. Because of 9/11 and the War on Terror, is impelled to join the military. Is advised to join the JAG Corps. Declines. Is trained as an Army Ranger. Leads troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is now running for Congress: a young, brainy, broadly educated, likable, down-home war veteran.

“He’s perfect,” says a lady at a Tea Party luncheon in Hot Springs. I later relate this remark to his mother. “No, he’s not,” she says. He is certainly “the political rock star of Arkansas,” as the Texarkana lawyer Johnny Goodson says.

What did Joe Biden say about Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic primaries? After he talked about “the first mainstream African American” and “articulate” and “bright” and “clean” (“clean”!) and “nice-looking”? “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

Yes, a storybook, man.

‐Cotton is running as the Republican nominee in the Fourth Congressional District of Arkansas. Arkansas, like the other southern states, was solidly Democratic for generations. It has just recently turned Republican. It turned Republican much later than the other southern states.


Cotton has one explanation: Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. It made no sense for the state’s politicos to turn Republican, given that one of their own was in the White House. The Clinton effect “lingered,” says Cotton: but now Clinton is history, and the state is Republican.

President Obama has a lot to do with this — the Republicanization of the state. He is very unpopular here. For reasons both pure and impure. The impure, a Democratic politico tells me, has to do with race.

‐The Fourth District seems to cover half the state — the southern half of the state. Actually, it covers 45 percent of the state. There are three other congressional districts. The Fourth, as you can deduce, is sparsely populated. It has 21,000 square miles, and about 670,000 people.

The median income is about $30,000. Unemployment is one percentage point below the national average. The district is about 20 percent black, and there are many Hispanic immigrants, recently arrived.

It is a quite rural place, the Fourth District. The largest town is Pine Bluff, with 50,000. The next largest is Hot Springs, with 35,000. No other town has more than 20,000. Cotton’s hometown, Dardanelle, has 4,700.

He gives me a rundown of what people in his district do: There are lots of self-employed, lots of small-business owners. There are beef farmers, dairy farmers, chicken farmers . . .

Incidentally, Bill Clinton styled himself “The Man from Hope” — Hope is in this district. Clinton was born there. But he did most of his growing up in Hot Springs. “The Man from Hot Springs” does not have the same political ring to it. “I still believe in a place called Hot Springs” does not quite work.

Another man from Hope, of course, is Mike Huckabee, the former governor, a Republican, who ran for president four years ago.

‐When I first met Tom Cotton, at a Dallas event last summer, I said — I wrote — “He looks like his name. What I mean is, he’s all-American, open, straightforward. Tall, lanky guy, like out of a Norman Rockwell painting (though the artist was from New York, and the candidate is from the South).”

Yes. I later learned that someone else had made just the same point: that Tom Cotton looks like his name.

Here in the district, campaigning, he is in what seems his uniform: casual button-down shirt, jeans, and boots.

‐“My name is Mattie Ross, of near Dardanelle in Yell County.” That’s a line from the movie True Grit, made in 1969, and based on the novel of the year before, by Charles Portis. The Cotton farm (a cattle farm, not a cotton farm) is just outside of Dardanelle.

The name of the county does not refer to hollerin’. Yell County is named after Archibald Yell (1797-1847), one of the state’s first politicians (its second governor).

‐Tom Cotton was born in 1977, making him 35 today. He is a sixth-generation Arkansan. Naturally, he was excited when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. For one thing, it meant that “big-foot national reporters like Fred Barnes were in Little Rock.”

(Fred is traveling along with me on this trip, reporting for The Weekly Standard.)

The ascension of the Arkansas governor had a lot to do with making Tom Cotton interested in politics and world affairs. But it did not take long for him to lose his enthusiasm for Clinton. Cotton is a natural-born conservative — “temperamentally and morally conservative,” he says. (Later, of course, this was supplemented by much reading and much experience.)

When a junior in high school, he started to hear from colleges and universities, recruiting him. They wanted him for his athletic skills. He was a basketball player, primarily. The team? The Dardanelle Sand Lizards. Apparently, Dardanelle students are the only Sand Lizards in the country.

Attention from the recruiters got Cotton to thinking he might go somewhere besides the University of Arkansas — “the University,” people in this state call it. No need to say more. When Cotton’s college-board scores came in, there was even more interest, more attention.

Cotton went to Harvard, as you know. He played basketball for one year, JV. After that — strictly intramurals. “I was a high-school hero and college zero,” he says.

Today, incidentally, he’s a runner. “I started running once I was out of law school as a way to get in shape for the Army. I hated running when I was a kid. Hated wind sprints in basketball practice.” He has now run eleven marathons. His best time is 2 hours, 52 minutes. He ran that in 2007, in Philadelphia.

His college major was government. Among the teachers he cites are Steven Ozment, Peter Berkowitz, Stephen Rosen, and Harvey Mansfield. The first of those teachers, I might note, is an Arkansan. Professor Ozment is from Camden, which is in the Fourth District.

One thing Cotton did in college was write a regular column for the Harvard Crimson — the “mainstream” paper, mind you, not the conservative one (which is the Salient). Only a handful of conservatives, relatively, have written a column for the Crimson.

After graduating from Harvard, Cotton spent a year at the Claremont Graduate University, in California. There, he absorbed yet more political philosophy from such teachers as Charles Kesler. Then came Harvard Law School.

His first teacher on the first day? Elizabeth Warren, who is now the Democratic nominee for Senate in Massachusetts. Cotton always knew she was a liberal — but not that she was as left-wing as she has proven to be. He also mentions Professor Mary Ann Glendon, who led a reading group in which he took part. They read Tocqueville.

Following law school, Cotton clerked for a judge on the Fifth Circuit, working mainly in Houston, and then worked for a D.C. firm. The reason? He had student loans to pay off. He did that. Then he went to war.

More tomorrow . . .


To order Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.


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