Magazine | November 12, 2012, Issue

Tom Cotton, for Real

(Danny Johnston/AP)
A conservative ‘rock star’ runs for Congress in Arkansas

Yell County, Ark. — Tom Cotton is a Republican’s dream, and, for many Democrats, a nightmare. Here is his bio, in brief:

Born and raised in rural Arkansas. Harvard College. Harvard Law School. Is profoundly affected by 9/11. Resolves to join the military. Is advised to serve in the JAG Corps. Refuses. 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.

You may remember something Joe Biden said about Barack Obama, during the 2008 Democratic primaries: “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” Yup — a storybook, man.

Tom Cotton is running as the Republican nominee in the Fourth District. For many generations, Arkansas was solidly Democratic, like the rest of the South. Recently, it has turned very Republican. One reason is President Obama: who is not at all popular here.

The Fourth District covers almost half the state — the southern half. The largest town is Pine Bluff, with 50,000 people. This is a rural district, a district of the self-employed, of small-business owners, of farmers.

He looks like his name, Tom Cotton does: open, straightforward, all-American. Tall and lanky, with a hint of aw-shucks about him, he could come from a Norman Rockwell painting. In every respect, he seems “almost out of a bygone era,” as Abigail Thernstrom says. (She is a scholar who knew him at Harvard.)

Cotton grew up on a cattle farm outside Dardanelle, in Yell County. The town’s population is 4,700. Born in 1977, he was 15 when Bill Clinton was elected president. That was an exciting thing: an Arkansas governor, president. It was this development that got the young man interested in politics and world affairs.

But his enthusiasm for Clinton did not last long. Cotton is a natural-born conservative — “temperamentally and morally conservative,” he says. Reading and experience only deepened, or expanded, this conservatism.

He played basketball in high school (the Dardanelle Sand Lizards). At Harvard, he played a year of JV — then just intramurals. His major was government. One of his teachers was the historian Steven Ozment — who happens to be an Arkansan, from right here in the district. Cotton wrote a regular column for the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper. Not many conservatives have done this. 

After college, he spent a year at the Claremont Graduate University, absorbing yet more political philosophy, from the likes of Charles Kesler. Then he went to Harvard Law. His first teacher on the first day? Elizabeth Warren, who is running for office herself this year: as the Democratic Senate nominee in Massachusetts. It would be hard to think of two candidates more at odds.

 It was in his third year of law school that 9/11 occurred. He knew he wanted to fight, had to fight. He clerked for a Court of Appeals judge, in Houston. He worked for a year at a D.C. firm, in order to pay off his student loans. Then he went to war.

They wanted him to serve in the JAG Corps, which was only natural. The Judge Advocate General’s Corps is the legal arm of the military. But Cotton was determined to be on the front lines, leading troops. He went to Iraq with the 101st Airborne. Later, he volunteered for Afghanistan. When he left active service in 2009, it was with the rank of captain. Among his decorations is the Bronze Star Medal.

#page#He could tell stories of combat, as any such person could — harrowing stories. He does not seem the type to do so, however.

While still in Iraq, he gained a little fame, or notoriety — on a national level. Between patrols, catching up on the news, he noticed that the New York Times had exposed yet another classified national-security program. (This one had to do with the tracking of terrorist financing.) Cotton fired off a tart, condemnatory letter to the Times. They did not publish it. But Power Line, the conservative blog, did. The letter made its way around the Internet.

Many war critics could not believe that Cotton existed. He must have been an invention of the Bush propaganda machine. A Harvard lawyer, volunteering for the infantry? Even the name was suspect — the name of a character in The Lord of the Rings (true).

On leaving the Army, Cotton worked for McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm. Then he returned home to run.

“Cotton for Congress World Headquarters,” as he says, is his house. And his car. The car travels all over this big district, 21,000 square miles. “I go to a lot of fish fries,” says Cotton. The campaign has five employees, two of them unpaid (including the campaign manager). No one, including the candidate, has ever worked in politics before — with the exception of one college kid, who did put in time on a previous campaign.

This campaign is not short of money: Cotton has raised more than $2 million, a pretty sum in these parts. He has become something of a national cause, a conservative cause. Members of the Club for Growth, for instance, have been generous. This is the organization founded by National Review’s Dusty Rhodes, among others. Its purpose is to help limited-government, free-market types such as Cotton.

For six terms, the congressman from the Fourth District has been Mike Ross, a Democrat. He decided not to run again this year. Because of Cotton? Hard to say. Anyway, he’s not running. Cotton is almost certain to win. The Democrat has run a spotty, poorly funded campaign.

Cotton takes the standard conservative positions, across the spectrum — economics, foreign policy, “social issues,” energy, etc. But he takes them with unusual sharpness and brio. On his website, he writes, “I view our fossil fuels as a valuable asset to be used, not an embarrassing liability to be restrained.” And, “Beware of politicians who promise to create jobs, because only businesses and entrepreneurs — not politicians — can create jobs.”

He also pledges to ask “one question about any proposed law: Is it constitutional?” (About Obamacare, he says no. He and Chief Justice Roberts can fight that one out.)

On the campaign trail, he relates to people easily, naturally — politely. Humorously. He has a couple of stops in De Queen, a town slightly bigger than Dardanelle. The local paper is, of course, the De Queen Bee. And on the main drag is the Dairy De Queen.

At Papa Poblano’s Mexican Café, he shakes hands with diners. He interrupts them at mealtime without seeming rude, somehow. Someone says, “Who’re you running against?” Cotton answers, “No one, they’re running against me!” (Then he answers the question, seriously — and neutrally, with no snark whatsoever.)

Next comes the Senior Citizen Center, where the Southwest Arkansas Tea Party Patriots are meeting. Cotton gives them his spiel, beginning with the bio. He says he went to college and law school — doesn’t say where. He refers to his tours of duty as “taxpayer-paid vacations abroad.” The Q&A is lively. One man says, “Everyone runs for office saying they’re going to clean up that ‘cesspool’ in Washington. Then they get there, and discover the cesspool is actually a hot tub. Why should you be any different?”

#page#Cotton smiles and says, in essence, Watch me. And if you don’t like him, you can throw him out after two years. That’s the beauty of the system.

Down in Texarkana, Cotton is in the company of the aforementioned lawyer, Johnny Goodson. He is a legend in Arkansas politics — in Arkansas everything. A lifelong Democrat, he is strongly behind the Republican Cotton. Here was a guy who had it made, says Goodson: an Ivy League prince who could have been a fat-cat lawyer. Instead, he went to Iraq and Afghanistan to have his you-know-what shot at.

Before dawn, Cotton, Goodson, and a few others go to the Cooper Tire factory. The candidate will work the shift change. At the gate, he shakes hands, getting them coming and going. He calls all the men “sir.” He asks one and all for their vote. A few pause to say, “What party are you with?” He tells them, forthrightly. They are pleased.

That’s the new Arkansas.

After a stop in Hot Springs (for the tea-party luncheon), we drive to the family farm in Dardanelle. I ask Cotton how he can appeal to people who are very modestly off, as a free-marketeer. Isn’t that a problem? No, he says. For one thing, “big government is unpopular everywhere, and the Constitution is always popular.”

I ask him about abortion. He has always been pro-life. Why? When he was growing up, everyone was pro-life, he says. “This is a matter of religious faith, for so many people.” As he got older, he thought about the issue more, and one thing he concluded was, “It’s not healthy for a society to treat its most vulnerable in the worst fashion.” That goes for both the unborn, he says, and the elderly.

A word about Afghanistan, too: While President Obama and others speak of “ending” the war, Cotton speaks of “winning” it. “In my little corner of America,” he tells me, “people like victory strategies instead of exit strategies.” He does believe that victory is possible. And if the country is war-weary, maybe that’s because “the president seems weariest of all.”

Greeting guests at the farm are the candidate’s parents, Len and Avis. Also a big yard sign: “Tom Cotton for Congress.” An equally big bull rests next to it. The candidate tells me his dad has never been much for yard signs — in fact, he has never permitted one before. Why risk upsetting the neighbors by flashing political colors? He has made an exception for his son, though.

As of now, Tom Cotton has never been elected to anything, but people are still talking about him for higher office: for senator, for governor, for president. “A lot of people have plans for me,” Cotton says, “but sometimes they forget to tell me about them.”

Those planning for him, and ballyhooing him, can be forgiven. A few conservatives have said, “He seems too good to be true!” Yet he is true, as far as I can tell: a throwback — something out of a Frank Capra movie, in addition to a Norman Rockwell painting — and a reality.

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