An Interview with Rep. Jim Cooper ’72

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Representative Jim Cooper ’72, father of Hayes Cooper ’14, has served in Congress as the U.S. Representative for Tennessee’s 5th congressional district since 2003. Previously, he had represented Tennessee’s 4th congressional district from 1983 to 1995.

A Groton graduate of the Class of 1972, Representative Cooper has an impressive educational background. He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a recipient of the prestigious Morehead-Cain Scholarship, and earned a B.A. in History and Economics. Next, he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, and studied at Oxford, where he earned a B.A./M.A. in politics and economics in 1977. He then received a Doctorate in Law from Harvard Law School in 1980.

He stated that back then, Groton School was far stricter than it is today; Groton students were hardly able to take time off campus. Representative Cooper’s form was close-knit; although students today may feel like they live in an intimate community, the experience was even more powerful for him in a class of only 32 boys. As for academic rigor, they were just as diligent as students today; when he visited Groton for Parents Weekend this year, Hugh Sackett told him that his section of Advanced Greek in his Sixth Form year was probably the best Groton had ever produced. That is impressive, given that over 40 years have passed since that class last met. Reflecting on his time at Groton, Representative Cooper said that “high school is transformative for everyone, but a prep school like Groton is even more intense.”

Groton also shaped Representative Cooper’s values. Despite the all-too-short time he had with his father, who died when he was 14, his teachers at Groton helped fill in for his lost father figure and taught him many of the principles of service that govern his life today. The classes he took, friends he made, and teachers he studied under helped to make him the man he is today. Some of those teachers, such as Mr. Sackett and Jon Choate, whom Representative Cooper said “were and are marvelous teachers,” still teach today, but many others, including teachers whose names still echo through our halls — Richard K. Irons, who taught European History, Acosta Nichols, who taught American History, and the teachers in the Classics Department during his days here, all influenced the man who one day would become Congressman.

He stated that after Groton, he was very fortunate to go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for it integrated both high academic standards and a community of “normal people.” Representative Cooper viewed the latter as quintessential to molding a politician who has to voice the concerns of the average person; in his own words, in order to be a successful politician, one must know how to deal with people from many different backgrounds, “so a large state university is a great training ground.”

During his interview, he remarked that the Rhodes Scholarship, for all its reputation, was not as great as many deem it to be. Instead, he said that the most demanding school he has attended was Harvard Law School, as it was far more “rigorous and precise.” Before Harvard, his “glibness” always assured him an easy way through school, “but glibness does not allow you to do well at Harvard.”

When asked about his motivation to run for office, Representative Cooper said that Groton’s motto, “cui servire est regnare,” contributed to his decision. However, the most significant reason behind his choice was his family value of public service: to give back to the country that had given so much to him. Yet there was no misconception in his family about the difficulty of being elected to such a high post. His father, William Prentice Cooper, Jr., who served as Governor of Tennessee from 1939 to 1945, always reminded him that “if you were lucky in life, you only had one or two chances to run and win. You had to be prepared, but it is mainly timing.”

Representative Cooper’s chance came early. After winning the Democratic primary for Tennessee’s 4th District, he became the youngest Congressman in America serving in office in 1982. Despite his young age, he said that his campaign for Congress was not a difficulty, but rather a “joy and privilege.”

When he started the campaign at the age of 27, he was the oldest candidate in the race. Having attended school in Tennessee up to seventh grade, he looked relatively  “home-grown” compared to his opponent, who had never attended school in Tennessee. Furthermore, his opponent was the daughter of the Senate majority leader Howard Baker, thus making her seem dependent on her father’s reputation to be elected. “My opponent in that race made all my weaknesses strengths,” said Representative Cooper, adding that “in any regular race I would have been hammered for being young, going out of school at such a young age, and being the son of a governor.”

Today, Representative Cooper is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition and the New Democrat Coalition, which are two moderate groups within the Democratic Party representing members of Congress who  uphold more conservative values than the average Democrat and also seek bipartisan cooperation on important issues. An avid advocate of the principle of compromise, Representative Cooper is always seeking to find a consensus on certain bills in Congress and to serve, not divide, the country.

One of Cooper’s greatest heroes from the past is Henry Clay, who represented the state of Kentucky in both chambers of Congress during his tenure. He was often praised as being “The Great Compromiser,” a man capable of bringing together even those with drastically different opinions. However, he remarked that “today, that [nickname] would be an insult.” Many Congressmen today prefer to be ideologues and ringleaders of uncooperative hardline groups rather than work together to get things done. Issues such as entitlement reform, which has been a problem for the past three decades, have gone unresolved because many Congressmen consider yelling more important than amicably resolving problems, he said.

Additionally, Representative Cooper sees within Congress not only a lack of cooperative spirit, but also a lack of information. Apparently, hearings within Congress are often treated as jokes, and are unattended by a great number of representatives. Among those who do attend, there is often a lack of information that regularly causes problems. On both sides, Congressmen isolate themselves, watching either exclusively Fox News or exclusively MSNBC, and coming onto the floor packed with propaganda and poor reporting. He mentioned that Ted Yoho (R., FL) recently attempted to make the claim that a U.S. default on debts could “stabilize the debt markets,” a claim ludicrous on its very face. He sees increasing dependence on such biased and poorly-made news as a huge problem, as it creates an uninformed populace which elects uninformed Congressmen.

Moreover, he sees the low caliber of candidates for office in recent years as a huge problem. Most people are averse to holding public office; there are not enough men and women in America who wish to serve the public who do not desire leadership simply because of power. In his opinion, “the biggest hurdles” in running for office “are the invisible ones: timidity and arrogance.” Many people think themselves too inexperienced or too young to run, but the only two Constitutional requirements are that one must be 25 years of age and a resident of the represented state. In his opinion, many people, including Groton alumni, unfortunately consider themselves above public office. He concludes that even though many people could make excellent judges or public officials, the pay on Wall Street will always attract more possible candidates than Washington’s.

Representative Cooper said that his job is “both the greatest and the worst.” Because his office is the closest to the Capitol dome, it is truly inspiring for him to be able to discuss and influence the great issues of the day. On the other hand, he said that three-quarters of what a Congressman does is knocking down false internet rumors. Other discouraging aspects include the lack of substance in Congressional debates. Also, he said that nowadays, “the loudest voices prevail instead of the wisest;” people are subject to rumors that only contain “a grain of truth.”

To him, the most important quality of a politician today is not to overlook the practical, which is to get elected, because otherwise one would simply not have a voice and would not get to the “sublime.” Once one has a “ticket to the dance,” then he or she will have the chance to do his or her best to move America in the right direction. Today, sixty to seventy percent of Americans believe their country is moving in the wrong direction; Representative Cooper agrees with them because many Congressmen today are influenced by big corporations and external influences. “We are hurting ourselves,” he said. “Congress itself has become a risk factor.” He described the recent government shutdown as a “self-inflicted wound” and a “terrible tragedy.” As a member of the board of directors, shutting down its own enterprise “for no good reason other than squabbling,” is a breach of duty to the enterprise. Threatening not to pay your bills is an even greater breach of fiduciary duty. This behavior is “off the charts” in terms of irresponsibility, he said, and simply damages the country for the political game. To him, it is a relief that the shutdown has passed, but it may be only a delay of a few months.

Representative Cooper also runs one of the largest internship programs on Capitol Hill, and always encourages Groton students to apply. He must warn possible applicants of the demanding standards he imposes on his interns, for he sees in them seeds of the future generations of public officials who will shape the nation. As he said, “America cannot be number one unless they are number one.” He believes that nowadays, kids in America have been  “spoon-fed” for so long that they do not take service as seriously as they should. For example, when he was concerned about the ability of his interns to write and think, he gave them the New York Times grammar test on the very first day of the program. The best scorer out of the thirty interns was an international Groton student whose second language was English. In this instance, Representative Cooper saw that Americans have grown so used to being leaders that they have forgotten that competition from foreign countries threatens to thwart the place of their cherished nation on the international stage.

For Representative Cooper, these lax standards can also be seen nowadays all around us. Newspapers today such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, used to be written at the eleventh grade level, but now they are written at “the eighth grade level and sinking.” Bookstores are disappearing, and although people read books on Kindles and keep up with media online, it is becoming harder to have a long attention span.

“You are like fish in an oxygen-depleted life,” said Representative Cooper, who believes that students today cannot sense these deteriorations of standards. “An oxygen depleted environment is all you’ve ever known, so it’s difficult for you to even sense how glorious more oxygenated water will be.”

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