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Tom Cotton: The Freshman Senator Behind The Iran Letter

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Tom Cotton: The Freshman Senator Behind The Iran Letter

Politics

Tom Cotton: The Freshman Senator Behind The Iran Letter

Tom Cotton: The Freshman Senator Behind The Iran Letter

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Freshman Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who has been in office barely two months, penned an open letter to Iranian leaders this week that 47 Republican senators signed. NPR profiles the Harvard-trained lawyer and Iraq War veteran.

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A freshman senator got the world's attention this week with a controversial letter. It was addressed to the leaders of Iran and signed by 46 other Senate Republicans. It warned that Congress could undo any nuclear deal that's reached. Tom Cotton of Arkansas was the man behind the letter. The young Iraq war vet is now a rapidly rising star among his new colleagues. NPR's Ailsa Chang has this profile.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: All week, even against a crescendo of backlash about the letter, there were still plenty of Senate Republicans falling all over themselves to gush about the youngest member of their chamber.

SENATOR TED CRUZ: Oh, Tom Cotton is a smart, talented senator.

CHANG: Republicans like Ted Cruz of Texas, who charged into his freshman year as the public face of a government shutdown.

CRUZ: I like and admire Tom Cotton. I'm sorry people are saying mean things about him by comparing him to me.

CHANG: For Iowa's Chuck Grassley, it's Cotton's resolve he admires.

SENATOR CHUCK GRASSLEY: He's a person you never have to put down, quote, unquote, as "undecided."

CHANG: And Mark Kirk of Illinois marvels at Cotton's intensity.

SENATOR MARK KIRK: He's a hardcharging guy, ex-military, very influential within the Republican conference.

CHANG: The guy they're fawning over has been a senator little more than nine weeks. He was barely into his first term in the House before he started ramping up to run for the upper chamber. And now at 37, Cotton has emerged as the standout of his freshman Senate class. Tall and lanky with an impassive face, Cotton can come off as aloof, distant. Colleagues call him fiercely focused, a politician who relentlessly stays on message. Here he was with ABC's Jonathan Karl.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONATHAN KARL: But you're trying to kill this deal, aren't you?

SENATOR TOM COTTON: I'm trying to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon - today, 10 years from now, 20 years from now.

KARL: But you've been quite clear that your goal in all of this is to kill this deal because you do not think that President Obama's negotiating a good deal.

COTTON: My only goal, for years now, has been to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

KARL: I understand it's your overall goal...

CHANG: Cotton declined to be interviewed for this story, but friends say the man who's monopolized headlines this week has actually never taken naturally to being the center of attention.

HARVEY MANSFIELD: He's just not gregarious. I think that's true. That's not his nature, but sometimes you can overcome that.

CHANG: Harvey Mansfield is a conservative scholar at Harvard who attracts students with similar political leanings. Cotton was one of them. Mansfield was struck by this shy, college kid from a cattle ranch in Arkansas.

MANSFIELD: He was not the type of student that you sometimes see the future politician who's good at making friends and looks around to do that.

CHANG: But Mansfield says what Cotton lacked in social ease he made up for in drive. Cotton came to his political philosophy course with a purpose.

MANSFIELD: He didn't want to be a philosopher for the sake of philosophy. He wanted to see what he can learn in order to guide his life and do some structure to his thinking.

CHANG: And Cotton has remained faithful to that thinking throughout his public life. Ranked as one of the most conservative House members, Cotton was the only Arkansas Republican to vote twice against the farm bill. Even though the bill was popular among farmers in his state, the vote was a protest against big government. Three years out of Harvard Law School, he joined the Army and became an infantry officer in Iraq. Now Cotton's one of the staunchest national security hawks in the Senate. Last month at an Armed Services Committee hearing, he railed against the president's promise to close Guantanamo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COTTON: We should be sending more terrorists there for further interrogation to keep this country safe. And as far as I'm concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell. But as long as they don't do that then they can rot in Guantanamo Bay.

CHANG: The display sent Republicans aflutter with praise, like Mark Kirk of Illinois.

KIRK: When he destroyed the administration the other day on GTMO, that was perfect.

CHANG: And now there's already presidential chatter. A bill was introduced in Arkansas this week that would let Cotton seek reelection for Senate and run for president at the same time. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, Washington.

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