A Pryor/Cotton footnote

In the run-up to the mid-term elections Atlantic political reporter Mollly Ball took a close look at our friend and now, since last week, Arkansas Senator-elect Tom Cotton “The making of a conservative superstar.” Ball is a diligent and skilled reporter, but the piece seemed to me a work of almost self-parodic liberal/media hostility. It annoyed me at the time; now I want to look back in cheer.

Ball led off with her bombshell: a look at Tom’s 92-page Harvard senior thesis on the Federalist Papers. Ball labored mightily to make something of “[t]he thesis, whose contents [were] revealed here for the first time[.]” She reported:

A cogent and tightly argued document, it reveals the depth and intellectual roots of his reverence for American traditions. It also reveals a contrarian devotion to some ideals that seem out of date today. Cotton insists that the Founders were wise not to put too much faith in democracy, because people are inherently selfish, narrow-minded, and impulsive. He defends the idea that the country must be led by a class of intellectually superior officeholders whose ambition sets them above other men. Though Cotton acknowledges that this might seem elitist, he derides the Federalists’ modern critics as mushy-headed and naive.

“Ambition characterizes and distinguishes national officeholders from other kinds of human beings,” Cotton wrote. “Inflammatory passion and selfish interest characterizes most men, whereas ambition characterizes men who pursue and hold national office. Such men rise from the people through a process of self-selection since politics is a dirty business that discourages all but the most ambitious.”

Cotton was only summarizing the views of Publius, the collective pseudonym used by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in the Papers. His reading is neither outré nor revisionist. Yet it seems significant that, out of all the ideas outlined in the Papers, these were the concepts Cotton chose to focus on and to defend forcefully against what he saw as more modish, inclusive ideas.

Ball’s bombshell: Tom concurred with Publius’s defense of the Constitution as set forth in the Federalist Papers. If only she had dug a little deeper, she might also have revealed that Tom reveres the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Her curiosity, however, had its limits.

Now comes the beauty part, which I had missed at the time. Ball’s deep dive inspired an equal and opposite reaction among the merry pranksters at the Washington Free Beacon. Free Beacon reporter Alana Goodman drew on the resources of the University of Arkansas special collections library to take a look at Mark Pryor’s senior thesis in “Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor: Desegregation an ‘unwilling invasion.'” Goodman reported:

Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor argued that the federal government’s desegregation of Arkansas’s largest public school in 1957 was an “unwilling invasion” that took “a local problem out of the local authorities’ hands” and led to deep suspicions of democracy in the state, according to a copy of his college thesis obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

Written in 1985, the 30-page paper—which also suggested that the state’s Democratic Party was hindering economic progress, and attributed policies such as welfare and the Equal Rights Amendment to “wild-eyed liberals”—could add to Pryor’s difficulties as he fights to protect his seat from Republican challenger Rep. Tom Cotton….

Goodman has more of interest, all of it worth reading. Goodman erred only in her contemplation of the possibility that her excellent reportage might affect the race. It was greeted with the usual crickets accompanying discoveries that, in an alternate universe, would be treated as major scandals if they involved Republicans. Pryor would have been hung out to dry as a perpetrator of the war on women as well as a defender of racial privilege. But no, the man is a Democrat. As it is, Goodman’s article on Pryor provides an entertaining and instructive contrast with Ball’s on Cotton.

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