Is Tom Cotton too good to be true?

National Journal takes an interesting approach to its examination of Tom Cotton in his race to unseat incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Pryor in Arkansas. Marin Cogan asks “Is Tom Cotton too good to be true?” It’s a loaded question, like “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Cogan frames her profile of Tom this way:

On a recent late-fall Saturday, Barbara Deuschle, a local restaurant owner, was recounting her first impression of her congressman, Tom Cotton, who is now running for the Senate. It was back in August 2011, just before the young Republican lawmaker formally announced his first campaign for the House, and Cotton and his dad came to a party meeting to get to know the faithful. Cotton was a 34-year-old political unknown who had recently lived in Washington. “When he just parachuted down into this district, nobody ever heard of him,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Who are you? We’d never heard of you before, where have you been? And what’s this all about?’ I grilled him for about 20 minutes.”

She began to piece together Cotton’s personal history—born in Yell County; spent time in Cambridge, Mass., Iraq, Afghanistan, and Washington, including a stint in the Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery. She had read recently that the guards who stand sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns are expected to have a 30-inch waist, and the diminutive Deuschle remembers gazing up at the 6-foot-5 veteran. “He’s so tall. I’m looking about at his belly button. I’m seeing his belt buckle, this skinny, teeny little waist, and I said to him, ‘Well, yeah, you still could be one of them,’ ” she recalls. “And he’s so humble! And unassuming!” Deuschle was impressed, if a little suspicious. “I spent the next 10 months going around trying to figure out, ‘What is wrong with him?’ He was too good to be true.”

Deuschle never found anything to justify her suspicion, but she did touch on what’s thrilled Republicans and captivated Washingtonians since Cotton arrived just 11 months ago as the newest representative of Arkansas’s 4th District: He seems too good to be true. With his sterling résumé—he has undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard and served in both of America’s post-9/11 wars—Cotton seems like a throwback to another era, when military service and an Ivy League pedigree were common plot points on the road to elected office. In August, after just seven months in the House, Cotton announced he would challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor for his seat next year. Pryor has deep ties here (his father, David Pryor, was also a senator and governor), but five years of Barack Obama’s presidency has turned Arkansas into a hellscape for Democrats. In 2009, five of the state’s six congressional members were Democrats; today, Pryor is the only one left. The state Legislature also flipped to Republicans last November for the first time since Reconstruction. Just 34 percent of likely voters approve of Pryor, a precipitous 19-point drop from his 53 percent rating last year (his Republican colleague John Boozman also polled at 34 percent). Less than one-third of the voters in the state approve of Obama. The most shocking index of Arkansan frustration is that, even as national polls show that more Americans blame Republicans for the government shutdown, more of the state’s likely voters blame Obama and the Democrats. And that was before the health care website catastrophe and the canceled insurance plans—before Republicans were given a political gift so good it could keep on giving all the way through the 2014 elections.

Power Line makes a cameo appearance in Cogan’s profile. Cogan doesn’t get what impressed us about Tom quite right, but we proudly recall:

Cotton’s first overseas deployment was in Iraq. “In very simple layman’s terms, my job in Iraq was to go out and find, kill, or capture bad guys,” he says. It was there that he discovered that The New York Times had revealed a secret CIA program designed to trace the financial activities of suspected terrorists. The decision of The Times, along with The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, to report it was controversial. Cotton wrote a scathing letter to the editor [of the New York Times], saying that the investigation had put him and his men in danger. “Congratulations on disclosing our government’s highly classified antiterrorist-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.” He ended by calling for the imprisonment of The Times’ top editors:

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.

The Times declined to publish Cotton’s letter, but he sent a copy to the conservative Power Line blog—and its readers were impressed with his chutzpah. Overnight, Cotton had become something of a cause célèbre in the conservative blogosphere. “Initially, my chain of command was not very pleased—not necessarily that I wrote the letter (that’s within any soldier’s right), but not very pleased that I didn’t tell them,” Cotton says, sounding a bit pleased with himself. “But it turns out that the chief of staff for the Army, Pete Schoomaker, had seen the letter, and he forwarded it to all Army generals and said it was great words of wisdom from a brave lieutenant on the front lines. I went from getting chewed out to getting patted on the back overnight.”

Cogan concludes the profile from Deuschle’s point of view, which captures my own:

Back at the Hot Springs meeting on health care, when Cotton tells the constituents, “I have long stood for repeal of this abominable law,” they break into applause. Barbara Deuschle, clutching her purse in front of her against a white fleece jacket decorated with American flags, swears she hasn’t ever encountered anyone like Tom Cotton in more than three decades in campaigns. “He’s genuine. He just blew my socks off. I tried so hard to find out: ‘What is wrong with you?’ But I haven’t found anything.”

Whole thing here.

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