There used to be and may still be a diorama in the Museum of Natural History in New York City depicting a noble beast — was it a lion? — holding a pack of jackals at bay. For some reason, the memory of that scene came back vivid and strong when Tom Cotton, the junior U.S. senator from Arkansas and already senior statesman, was confronted by an angry mob at Springdale High School’s 2,000-seat theater recently.
Hundreds more jammed the aisles or stood outside when the fire marshal was sufficiently safety-conscious to close the doors. “This is what democracy looks like,” some of the gathering mob chanted. Which may be why the ancient Greeks warned that democracy would inevitably lead to dictatorship, and why the founding fathers chose to meet in secret when they drew up the Constitution of the United States in Philadelphia back in 1787.
It was indeed a memorable spectacle as caricature replaced reason in that overflowing arena full of people and placards. One of the cartoons displayed by this mob-in-the-making showed Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler, President Donald Trump and U.S. Senator Tom Cotton side by side as if they were posing for a group photograph. That sign pretty well summed up both the crowd’s mood and its tenuous grasp on either history or today’s facts.
In brief, the crowd was … rude. Which used to be about the worst thing a citizen of this state could say about fellow Arkies, Arkansans or Arkansawyers, depending on your preference. Now all manners seem to have been swept away by the political passions of the passing moment. “This is a pretty hostile crowd,” as one member of the throng told Sen. Cotton in what may have been the understatement of the evening.
Tom Cotton stood his ground respectfully as he tried to explain why he was in favor of repealing and replacing Obamacare with something better at a lower price, why he favored using the latest in clean-coal technology instead of limiting the country’s sources of energy to just oil, and so reasonably on. At least when his voice could be heard above the crowd’s taunts. Capt. Cotton conducted himself like the officer and gentleman he is. Having served two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and come away with the citations to prove it, Tom Cotton’s conduct should not have surprised. And it didn’t in the eyes of those who have followed him since he was penning editorials and letters to the editor at Harvard, for the boy from Dardanelle, Ark., has long since gone on to prove himself in both civil and military life.
The senator had been scheduled to stay at this raucous meeting for an hour and a half but then announced he would stay on another half-hour so everyone there would have a better chance at him. Which earned a word of grudging respect from 32-year-old Dillon Word, who went on record to say: “I’m grateful that he came out because we had a chance to speak with our congressman. We don’t often get to do that.” Except when we pick up the phone and place a call to him or to one of his district offices. Mr. Word might be surprised by the alacrity with which Tom Cotton or a member of his staff returns phone calls, answers mail and generally responds to his constituents. First in war, first in peace, the senator often enough is first to take care of business. In this case, all the business that comes with representing Arkansas in the Senate of the United States.
The senator did have at least one civilized conversation during the evening. This one came with a woman from Springdale who expressed the deepest concern about losing her health insurance if Obamacare were repealed and replaced. “Without the coverage for pre-existing conditions,” said Kati McFarland of Springdale, “I will die. That’s not hyperbole.” For she suffers from what’s called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which weakens her heart and veins. The senator assured the wheelchair-bound lady that the Republican majority’s replacement for Obamacare would cover her problem, but she seemed more interested in needling him than in getting an answer to her question. And so it went during the long, long night — after which the senator seemed as calm and solicitous as ever and many of his critics more unappeasable than ever. He came off well, all in all. They didn’t.
Some of the senator’s stalwart supporters stuck around for the fireworks, too. “There are many people,” a lady assured him, “a majority of people in Arkansas, that support you.” She told him she now has to hold down three jobs in order to pay her ever-rising insurance premiums under Obamacare, for her rates have doubled since President Obama’s signature Patient Protection and (un)Affordable Care Act became law.
Throughout this ordeal-by-heckling, Sen. Cotton remained his calm, cool and collected self. “I’m happy to hear from Arkansans from this part of the state, from any part of the state,” he told the press in his amicable way before the evening exploded. “I’m glad they’re all coming.” And he hadn’t changed a bit a couple of hours later, still obliging all within earshot.
Call it a portrait in courage, which someone once described as grace under pressure. And that’s what Tom Cotton shows, and why many of us admire him. And have admired him since he came on the political scene. At ease, Capt. Cotton, you’ve earned a brief respite before returning to your country’s battles. For there’s sure to be more of them coming — at a rate that’ll be fast and furious.