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.