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Professor Don Smith reflects on roots of influential Congressman Tom Cole ’71

Tom Cole ’71, a Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, made national news last week when he broke with Republican leadership in the House. As part of negotiations over averting the “fiscal cliff” of tax increases and spending cuts scheduled for Jan. 1, he called for the chamber to approve an extension of tax cuts only for those making less than $250,000 per year. That is the option President Barack Obama endorses, while the Republican leadership wants to extend the tax cuts for all income levels.
As a student, Cole took a seminar with Professor Emeritus of History Don Smith. The S&B’s Yishi Liang sat down with Smith to talk about Cole as a student.

How did you meet Congressman Cole?
He took my seminar and I encouraged him to continue to do British History. I got to know him pretty well so I was somewhat of an informal advisor to him.

What was the seminar?
It was Parliamentary Government in Victorian Britain.

What was the class like?
It was a lively group. There were eight people in it. It’s amusing to me that one of them became a Republican member of the Congress and another the Deputy Solicitor General in the Reagan administration [Tom Merrill ’71].

How was Tom as a student?
He was an excellent student and a very personable young man. There was no doubt that Tom was a Republican. But he was always an independent thinker and a very intelligent person, not one likely to follow leadership blindly. For example, in the seminar, he would question what I said or what some of the other students said. He was not just a passive listener.

Did you think he was going to become a politician?
I thought he was going to become a historian. On the other hand, he was interested in politics, I think partly because his mother had been an important figure in the Oklahoma Republican Party. So you might say that’s not what I expected would happen, but I wasn’t particularly surprised when he did go into Republican politics.

Are you still in touch with him?
Not on a regular basis, but whenever he comes back here, I always see him. The College is still in touch with him. He received an alumni award at the last reunion.

Do you two ever discuss politics?
I haven’t talked to him since his election. When he was first elected, I wrote him a letter commending to him the example of Representative Jim Leach, who used to represent Southeast Iowa, who was considered a moderate or sometimes even liberal Republican. But that’s as far as I got with discussing what Tom’s role might be in the House of Representatives. But perhaps because we’re on different parties, in conversation, I generally steer away from politics.

What do you think of him as a Congressman?
I believe that he’s much more interested in economic and fiscal policy than social issues. He’s a standard Republican. He wants to keep taxes as low as possible. And he doesn’t want to spend. As you know, he’s recently gone into the media saying that Republicans need to compromise with President Obama with these current issues. I think he’s genuine about that. I was a little surprised to see he stuck his neck out like that.

Why do you think he did that?
I believe that it may be that his recent time with the media maybe a kind of trial balloon that John Boehner gave him the authorization to do. I think Boehner would like to see this fight over. And I think he may have given Tom the green light to test the waters.

Do you think his time at Grinnell helped him develop any of his political views?
I don’t see that his political views were changed very much by being at Grinnell. I think he was a conservative when he came here and a conservative when he left. In so far as Grinnell has changed people from being conservative to being liberal, I don’t think it had much effect on Tom in that way. But I think his time at Grinnell sharpened his intellect and sharpened his mind.

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