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‘He Liked to Provoke’: Foreshadowing Tom Cotton ’99

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More than 25 years ago, Tom B. Cotton ’99 helped organize Harvard Model Congress. But playing pretend apparently wasn’t enough.

Since his time at Harvard, Cotton has developed a persona of an ambitious politico with a penchant for defending views some find incendiary. The identity stuck as the senator from Arkansas quickly rose through the ranks of Capitol Hill, starting from his 2013 stint in the House of Representatives to his past two terms in the Senate, where he has emerged as a conservative firebrand whose name regularly appears on shortlists for higher posts.

Most recent among them is vice president of the United States of America: the New York Times reported last week that Cotton was among former President Donald Trump’s top five candidates for the post, as his years of committed loyalty to Trump may begin to pay dividends.

“It was a rapid rise and it’s continued,” said Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. ’53, one of Cotton’s former professors. “He’s done quite well for himself.”

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Cotton fit the archetype of a future senator from day one. He was a Government concentrator, staffed Harvard Model Congress, and wrote columns — often on politics — for The Harvard Crimson.

Adam R. Kovacevich ’99, who befriended Cotton through Harvard Model Congress, said that the Cotton he remembers from their undergraduate days was quite similar to the Cotton of today.

“Tom was always conservative. I am not. We always differed on a fair amount of political views but we had a shared interest in politics,” Kovacevich said. “He’s as conservative as he was at Harvard — as he was as an undergraduate.” Kovacevich, too, works in Washington — serving as the CEO of Chamber of Progress, a left-leaning policy coalition of tech companies.

Kovacevich suggested Cotton would be excited less by the ideological tilt of an idea than by its novelty and proclivity to provoke.

He read both liberal and conservative magazines — including the New Republic and the Weekly Standard — “because they were a venue for provocative ideas,” Kovacevich said.

He also wrote himself. Cotton ran a column in The Crimson, often assuming conservative stances likely irking or even offending his liberal peers.

In one of his final Crimson bylines, titled “Coda,” Cotton addressed his detractors. He described his column as having taken stances “against sacred cows” — like affirmative action — and “in favor of taboo notions,” like “(most unforgivably) conservatism.”

“In retrospect, I have devoted my time at Harvard to cultivating contrarianism,” Cotton wrote, responding to a peer calling him “contrarian.”

“It has not always been a chosen or a conscious endeavor with me, but as my colleague’s comment illustrates, it seems to be a realized one. That most readers would agree with the label only pleases me more,” Cotton added.

“It was my intent to challenge with my writings; and by challenging, I meant to improve, to jolt slumbering minds into wakefulness,” he added.

It was this defiant, willfully controversial streak that would come to define Cotton’s career in Congress. In 2020, he penned a now-infamous New York Times op-ed arguing that state and local leaders should call in the military to supplement responses to riots protesting police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

The piece immediately caused a firestorm. The Times drew significant backlash, with many — including a number of its employees — saying Cotton’s article contained incorrect factual assertions and that his stance would incite further violence.

In a corner, the Times added an editor’s note to the piece, saying it did not meet the paper’s standards and should have been more rigorously edited.

Cotton seized on the opportunity to blast what he saw as the “moral rot” of liberal institutions. The Times, he told FOX News, “totally surrendered to a woke child mob from their own newsroom that apparently gets triggered if they’re presented with any opinion contrary to their own.”

Kovacevich, Cotton’s longtime friend, doesn’t find his embrace of controversy surprising.

“He’s always felt his convictions strongly and I think he’s also always been provocative,” Kovacevich said. “Again, got to go back to his Crimson columns. He liked to provoke.”

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at neil.shah@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @neilhshah15.

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