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Richard Cohen: Squealing Porcine Quisling, or just Gone Native?

07/29/2008 04:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I started this morning as I do almost every morning: Groaning loudly, waking my wife, vaguely fumbling for some Advil, waiting for my wife to get it for me, finally popping painkillers and, in the end, turning on Morning Joe on MSNBC. Joe Scarborough's show has become something of an institution among American political junkies in a remarkably short amount of time, based largely on the simple fact that, if you want to catch politics in the morning without rolling out of bed and fetching the laptop, Morning Joe is your only bet. I mean, who else you gonna turn to, Steve Doocy? Jesus.

So, it was a typical morning as I turned on the Joe Show, and there was allegedly liberal Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, expounding on his latest column, in which he offers up the now-hoary bromide that Barack Obama is an empty vessel no one knows anything about. Never mind that the man has written two autobiographies and has a detailed issues page on his Web site, which means anyone with half a brain and an attention span greater than, apparently, the average Washington Post columnist, can figure out both where the man came from and where he stands now.

In the interests of professional curiosity, I was forced at this point to set aside Joe, Mika and the crew, stumble out of bed and actually get to my laptop, a recently purchased high-end HP number in glossy black that boasts more gigabytes in RAM than my old computer had in its hard drive and runs quicker than an Olympic sprinter and of which I am, obviously, still quite proud. Anyway, the column goes on to compare Barack Obama's short, meaningless existence with the golden life of John McCain. Cohen writes, "I could cite four or five actions -- not speeches -- that John McCain has taken that elicit my admiration, even my awe." He goes on to mention McCain's POW status, of course, along with his push for campaign finance reform and other instances in which the man has bucked the party trend.

But Cohen fails to mention the many actions (I'm sure I could cite four or five of them myself, beginning with, say, cheating on his first wife, going through the Keating Five and wrapping up with his most recent truth-free campaign ad) that paint McCain in quite the opposite light. Cohen builds McCain up into a demigod of the political world when in fact, he simply has a longer record, both good and bad, than Obama -- a record that can be used to paint him in any light the author wishes. And Cohen obviously wishes for McCain to be painted in the brightest, warmest colors possible.

It'd be simply a weird anomaly if a liberal columnist did this once. But this episode is only the latest in Richard Cohen's improbable about face. It began, perhaps, with Colin Powell's UN speech before the Iraq War. I watched that speech myself. I remember seeing the cartoon drawings of mobile weapons labs that Powell assured us were just like the ones Saddam had, the satellite pictures of buildings that Powell assured us were weapons plants, and the vial of U.S.-made anthrax that he claimed was similar to Saddam's stuff. I was floored by the absolute lack of any real evidence justifying an invasion of the country. So it was with, to put it mildly, a touch of bewilderment that I read Cohen's column on the Powell speech: "The evidence Colin Powell presented to the United Nations -- some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail -- had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman -- could conclude otherwise."

These, of course, are not the words of a liberal, especially when taken along with Cohen's suggestion that a little bomb-dropping could be "therapeutic" in this post-9/11 world of ours. Instead, finding Powell's speech so strikingly convincing reveals a tremendously credulous mind at best (hardly the hallmark of a good journalist), a deliberate covering for the Bush administration's march to war at worst (hardly the hallmark of a liberal). In any case, Richard Cohen is no liberal, and I am damn tired of him being labeled as such by the media at large. Richard Cohen is Squealer from Animal Farm.

Or maybe not. Maybe he isn't a squealing porcine quisling. Maybe, as happens to so many journalists who stay on a beat too long, after years of covering politics, Cohen has gone native. I've seen it happen among the older hacks in the trade. The court reporter who refers to the district attorney's office in first-person plural. ("We'll look into that -- and by we, I mean me and the prosecutor.") The sports reporter who does batting practice with the local minor league team. The political columnist who spends more time at off-the-record cocktail parties and BBQ picnics than he does actually covering his beat. (Sound familiar, Rich?) That would certainly explain why, when the Valerie Plame scandal hit the fan and Scooter Libby went on trial, Cohen pooh-poohed the entire scene and even had the temerity to write, "Government officials should not lie to grand juries, but neither should they be called to account for practicing the dark art of politics. As with sex or real estate, it is often best to keep the lights off." To any journalist not lost among their sources, defending their friends instead of ferreting out the truth, the idea that underhanded political maneuvers should remain in the dark is utterly wrongheaded.

But hell, maybe it's not even that bad. In his Iraq apologia this past March, Cohen wrote, "I wanted to go to "them," whoever "they" were, grab them by the neck, and get them before they could get us."

Perhaps Cohen is neither covering for the powerful nor covering for his friends. Perhaps, when we take final stock of him, Richard Cohen is simply a frightened, sad man. That is why he let himself be blinded by the march to war. That is why, when it felt as if the Bush administration's hold on power was slipping away, he casually dismissed the Plame fiasco and invited his readers to wear the same blindfold he has worn for so long -- because it is a comfortable fit, and it makes him sleep better at night. His rush to war in Iraq is the same thing that kept him against war in Bosnia -- fear. And it's that same base emotion that now forces his hand to write about the senator from Illinois as "Obama the Unknown." Cohen knows McCain. He has talked at length with McCain for years. He does not know Obama personally, and so he fears what he does not understand. Maybe that's it. Maybe Richard Cohen's only problem is that he gently cries himself to sleep at night, his uncalloused, lily-white hands self-consciously stroking his beard, waiting for an anthrax letter that never comes.

In any case, if he is so easily ruled by his own baser emotions, it goes without saying that Cohen has no place covering so base a practice as politics. And if he's gotten too friendly with the powers that be, or is now in agreement with them, well, that's fine. But his newspaper and the media at large need to stop referring to him as the liberal columnist for the Washington Post and start throwing him in with the Krauthammers and Kristols of the world, where he belongs.