Sen. Tom Cotton (Associated Press photo)
By James M. Perry
Junior members of the United States Senate were treated once upon a time somewhat like proper little children of Victorian parents: They should be seen but not heard.
Behold, then, Sen. Thomas Bryant Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and at 37 the Senate's youngest member.
On March 9, he wrote a letter to Islamic leaders in Iran, saying, basically, they should know that his party might not welcome an Obama-negotiated nuclear-free pact with Iran. The curious thing is that he managed to entice 47 of his party's 54 members to join him in signing it. "Traitorous," said one critic. "Mutinous," said another. "I'm embarrassed for them," said President Obama.
Seven days later, after causing a major upheaval in both his country's domestic and foreign affairs, he delivered his maiden speech on the Senate floor, in which, for the most part, he urged significant increases in defense spending. But he did allude briefly to the letter to Iran's brutal leaders.
"I will simply note," he said, "that the deal foreshadowed by the president -- allowing Iran to have uranium-enrichment capabilities and accepting any expiration date on an agreement -- to quote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- 'doesn't block Iran's path to the bomb; it paves Iran's path to the bomb.'"
So, who is this young whippersnapper who has managed to cause such a furious uproar before he had even spoken a word on the Senate floor?
Let's start at the beginning. He was born in Dardanelle, Ark. (population: 4,745 in 2010), in one of my favorite jurisdictions, Yell County. After graduating from the local high school, he was accepted at Harvard, graduating magna cum laude. He moved right on to the Harvard Law School, where he took at least one course with Elizabeth Warren, now a U.S. senator and the Democratic Party's leading left-wing firebrand. None of that Ivy League education seems to have sunk in.
Three years after graduating from law school, he joined the army, and served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
He gave notice of what might lie ahead when he wrote an angry open letter to the New York Times in June of 2006 when he was on active duty in Afghanistan leading a company of 130 soldiers. In it, he complained about a story in the paper that revealed the Bush Administration was running a secret program monitoring the finances of suspected terrorists. Mr. Cotton called for the arrest on espionage charges of those responsible for publishing the story.
"You may think," he wrote, "you have done a public service, but you have gravely endangered the lives of my soldiers and all other soldiers and innocent Iraqis here." The Times didn't publish the letter, but he had sent a copy to Power Line, a conservative blog. They did publish it, and -- in the blog's words -- "it shot around the world."
Captain Tom Cotton took an honorable discharge in 2009.
Moving right along, he won a vacant seat in the House of Representatives in 2012 and then defeated Democrat Mark Pryor for a Senate seat in 2014.
It's an amazing story. Tom Cotton is a young man on the move. Even so, why did so many of his Senate colleagues sign that flame-throwing letter? It's no excuse to say some of them were in a hurry to vacate Washington and head home on recess. They were taken in by an ambitious young man who has a long way to go.
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, contributes regular observations to post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.