Meet Tom Cotton: Farmer, Scholar, Lawyer, Warrior


Tom Cotton, born and raised in rural Arkansas, is also a Harvard graduate (college and law school), an experienced lawyer and management consultant, and a U.S. Army veteran with combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s a conservative with a grounding in political philosophy and a sense of humor. He’s running for the newly-open seat in Arkansas’s newly-redrawn fourth congressional district, which has a Cook rating of R+8.

In short: Tom Cotton is one of the best candidates running for Congress this election cycle–and possibly ever.

If he wins the Republican primary on May 22, 2012, he will likely go on to win the seat–and he will likely serve for a very long time. Given the fact that Cotton is only in his mid-30s, and with his impressive record, he is likely to be a force in Republican politics for many decades, shaping the future of the party and the country.

I first met Tom in college when I was a rampaging lefty on a liberal campus and he was one of the sole conservative voices on the op-ed page of the Harvard Crimson. When I interviewed him recently, I reminded Tom that he and Eric Nelson (now a professor of government at Harvard) had represented the conservative wing of a panel discussion I convened as part of something called the “Democracy Teach-In” in the spring of 1998.

Subsequently, I discovered an argument Tom and I once had, an exchange over Jürgen Habermas in which I offered this pretentious critique (but also this, perhaps redemptive, parody). Tom puzzled me, not just because he was conservative but because he had a rare, humble confidence in his views. What Jed Purdy (now a law professor at Duke) was to liberals on campus, Tom was to conservatives: a leader, present and future.

My own views have changed markedly since then, while Tom’s have been strengthened by his unique experiences. On September 11, 2001, Tom recalls, he stood around a television with his law school classmates and watched the World Trade Center fall. “At that time,” he says, “I was not driven to be a lawyer anymore, but a soldier.” He worked for a couple years to pay off his student loans, then walked into an Army recruiting office.

Rather than seek direct commission as a JAG officer, handling legal affairs, Tom joined the infantry. “I wanted to do the activity at the very core of combat and warfare: closing with and destroying the enemy with fire and maneuver,” he recalls. “I had the desire to fight, find, and kill the bad guys.” After training for several months, Tom deployed to pre-surge Iraq in 2006, where he commanded a platoon patrolling southern Baghdad.

“I was there for a little over six months, when everything seemed to be spiraling out of control–if you believed the media,” he recalls. “We were holding the line but not advancing–and therefore losing. We didn’t have enough troops. We weren’t focused on separating the militia from the civilians, because we didn’t have enough faith and confidence from the people. They liked us, but they were too scared to side with us.

“We were out on patrol six hours every day. My vehicle hit three different bombs in the first two weeks, so the other guys called me ‘Magneto.’ Most of the firefights we had were shorter than what you see in the movies, because by that time the bad guys understood our capability. All of our guns could penetrate their buildings. When they attacked, it was mostly snipers or long-range rifles that could break contact right away.”

Tom stayed in touch with debates back home, and while on a distant patrol, he sent a letter to the editor of the New York Times that became a political sensation. “We were out on patrol for ninety-six hours at a time, with eighteen hours of relative down time in between. I had just returned to base, and during the previous ninety-six hours the company lost a soldier.” It was then that Tom read a Times article on terrorist financing.

The article, which disclosed a secret Treasury Department program to monitor and stop the money flows to terror organizations, touched a nerve with Tom. An earlier article by the same authors had exposed the government’s warrantless wiretapping program, and though it earned the authors a Pulitzer Prize, the article also drew criticism from those who worried that it would alert terrorists and make stopping future attacks more difficult.

Tom believed the Times scoop on terrorist finance posed similar risks, wrote a quick letter to the editor, and sent a copy to the editors of the conservative Powerline blog:

Dear Messrs. Keller, Lichtblau & Risen:

Congratulations on disclosing our government’s highly classified anti-terrorist-financing program (June 23). I apologize for not writing sooner. But I am a lieutenant in the United States Army and I spent the last four days patrolling one of the more dangerous areas in Iraq. (Alas, operational security and common sense prevent me from even revealing this unclassified location in a private medium like email.)

Unfortunately, as I supervised my soldiers late one night, I heard a booming explosion several miles away. I learned a few hours later that a powerful roadside bomb killed one soldier and severely injured another from my 130-man company. I deeply hope that we can find and kill or capture the terrorists responsible for that bomb. But, of course, these terrorists do not spring from the soil like Plato’s guardians. No, they require financing to obtain mortars and artillery shells, priming explosives, wiring and circuitry, not to mention for training and payments to locals willing to emplace bombs in exchange for a few months’ salary. As your story states, the program was legal, briefed to Congress, supported in the government and financial industry, and very successful.

Not anymore. You may think you have done a public service, but you have gravely endangered the lives of my soldiers and all other soldiers and innocent Iraqis here. Next time I hear that familiar explosion — or next time I feel it — I will wonder whether we could have stopped that bomb had you not instructed terrorists how to evade our financial surveillance.

And, by the way, having graduated from Harvard Law and practiced with a federal appellate judge and two Washington law firms before becoming an infantry officer, I am well-versed in the espionage laws relevant to this story and others — laws you have plainly violated. I hope that my colleagues at the Department of Justice match the courage of my soldiers here and prosecute you and your newspaper to the fullest extent of the law. By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars.

Very truly yours,

Tom Cotton

Baghdad, Iraq

Tom’s letter was hailed by conservatives and denounced by liberals who wondered openly whether a “Lt. Cotton” actually existed. The military was flooded with emails, many of them angry. Meanwhile, Tom was on patrol again, unaware of the reaction. He was due for a dressing-down by his commanders when he returned–until the letter was praised in an email from the Army Chief of Staff, earning Tom a pat on the back instead.

While the controversy put Tom on conservatives’ radar, it has also remained a red flag for the left. A recent Mother Jones attack piece called him “The GOP Candidate Who Wants Journos Jailed.” In any event, there would be more to Tom’s military career, including service at the Arlington National Cemetery, and a tour in Afghanistan, which he describes as “helping the good guys,” as opposed to “getting the bad guys” in Iraq.

His vast and variegated military experience has given him clear insights on President Obama’s policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he calls “misguided” and “driven by political considerations and the 2012 calendar.” He adds the U.S. may be “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” in Afghanistan, with Afghans less likely to cooperate with American troops on their way out. “It feeds an impression of us as an unreliable ally.”

Whatever evidence of “isolationism” may have appeared in the Republican presidential debates has yet to surface on his home turf in rural Arkansas. “The vast majority of all the audiences with whom I’ve spoken do strongly support the traditional Reaganite view,” Tom relates. “That’s true whether they’re Republican Party or Tea Party. There’s not any desire to withdraw precipitously. Americans are against defeat–not against war.”

Tom also opposes Texas governor Rick Perry’s suggestion that the U.S. start all foreign aid at zero–particularly in the case of Israel, with which the U.S. has a close alliance and long-standing agreements. His pro-Israel stance, he says, draws applause at local gatherings–though the main issues in his campaign are jobs and economic growth in a district whose economy is dominated by timber; oil and gas; agriculture; and an ailing small business sector.

“Ninety percent of the questions are bread-and-butter, kitchen-table issues, especially on spending and debt,” Tom says. “There’s a sense that money is being wasted, being paid out to the president’s friends and cronies. The new regulations he’s imposed have a huge impact on small businesses, which is pretty much all we have here in south and west Arkansas. Big business can comply with it, but small businesses just can’t.”

Arkansas congressional districts, 2011

Tom is traveling throughout the vast fourth district–“burning tire rubber rather than shoe leather,” he says–as he prepares for a primary contest that will begin in earnest with the first debate in mid-January. His opponents are Beth-Anne Rankin, who ran in 2010 but lost to the incumbent Democrat, Mike Ross, who is now retiring; and Marcus Richmond, a retired Marine officer. As of last quarter, Cotton is out-raising both rivals combined.

The fourth district includes Tom’s home in Dardanelle, Yell County (of True Grit fame), where he grew up on the family cattle farm. His parents “were not a political family by any means,” and he jokes that they are putting up political signs for the first time. It can’t hurt that the Arkansas Razorbacks are heading to the Cotton Bowl or that Cook recently moved his district from “likely Democratic” in June to “leans Republican” today.

GOP leaders had asked him to run in 2010, but Tom had just returned from Afghanistan and the timing felt rushed. “Now, I feel prepared, mentally and professionally,” he says. “It’s a critical moment for the country. I’m running for the same reasons that I joined the Army.” Tom reports that President Obama’s approval ratings in the district are at 31%, well below his national ratings–a good portent of Republican victory next fall.

If Tom wins, he’ll represent Bill Clinton’s hometown of Hope, Arkansas. It’s particularly ironic, since Clinton’s victory in 1992 was the reason Tom took an interest in politics. He recalls how the curiosity over “my governor” being elected soon faded into disappointment after Clinton’s first year in office.

Tom’s not opposed to “hope”; he simply believes in facing up to tough choices–in his words: “The hard right over the easy wrong.” In 2012, the choice is easy.


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