Richard Cohen’s “gag reflex” column is indefensible. So is his piece arguing that Trayvon Martin was “understandably suspected because he was black.” His claim that “[t]he first thing you should know about the so-called Steubenville Rape is that this was not a rape involving intercourse,” smacks of Todd Akin. And the fact that his employer described him as a “left-of-center presence” that liberals might consider “one of their own” raises serious questions about whether anyone at the Washington Post has actually met a liberal.
But even if none of these things were true. Even if he had never defended racism or suggested that rape is somehow Miley Cyrus’ fault, his work still falls far below what should be the standard at any major American newspaper. Cohen is a banal, milquetoast analyst who, by his own admission, cannot perform the most basic task his job requires.
Consider, for a moment, Cohen’s defense of his column claiming that “[p]eople with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering” the Mayor-elect of New York’s interracial family. Cohen claims that he did not intend these words to be racist — although they have widely been read as such — but he admits that his words did not accurately convey his meaning. “I could have picked a better word,” he told the Huffington Post, “but it didn’t ring any bells with anybody, it didn’t ring any bells with me.”
Richard Cohen is a professional writer. His job is to use words to convey meaning. That’s his only job. So even if we take Cohen at his word — that he did not intend to convey an offensive meaning and merely failed to understand that his words would be taken that way — his defense is actually a damning indictment of his own competence. If a recent college graduate submitted a writing sample to ThinkProgress that could reasonably be read to associate multiracial marriages with the gag reflex, we would not hire them for even an entry-level position.
To be fair, nearly every professional writer can cite a time when they made a word selection that they later regretted. Here’s a selection I made that I now regret. But Cohen’s offensive columns fit a pattern. If Cohen didn’t mean to suggest that racism against young black men is understandable, or that some rapes are less repugnant than others, then he lacks a basic fluency with the written language.
And even when Cohen’s columns are not odious, they are just as often trifle sweetened with obvious truths and outright inaccuracies.
If you excise the offensive passages from his most recent piece, the remainder of his argument is that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who is perceived as a relatively moderate Republican, will not fare well against more outspoken social conservatives in the 2016 Iowa Caucuses. This is a claim that I happen to agree with, but that’s because it’s not a particular insightful observation. The last two Iowa GOP caucuses were won by Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, both of whom positioned themselves as insurgent, socially conservative alternatives to the candidates preferred by party elites. Republican Iowa caucus-goers like insurgent, socially conservative alternatives to the candidates preferred by party elites. Anyone who doesn’t know this probably shouldn’t be writing professionally about national politics.
Some of Cohen’s other columns offer such insights as Ted Cruz is good at getting media attention or Mitt Romney comes off as a patrician and not as a populist. These are, of course, true insights. But they aren’t exactly windows into the American soul.
Above all else, Cohen seems constitutionally incapable of probing deeply into a subject. Take his penultimate column in the lead-up to the 2012 election. Cohen starts with the uninteresting observation that President Obama’s reelection campaign offered a less ambitious policy agenda than his campaign in 2008, then he offers this indictment of the president:
[S]omewhere between the campaign and the White House itself, Obama got lost. It turned out he had no cause at all. Expanding health insurance was Hillary Clinton’s longtime goal, and even after Obama adopted it, he never argued for it with any fervor. In an unfairly mocked campaign speech, he promised to slow the rise of the oceans and begin to heal the planet. But when he took office, climate change was abandoned — too much trouble, too much opposition. His eloquence, it turned out, was reserved for campaigning.
Obama never espoused a cause bigger than his own political survival.
First of all, the idea that the President who pushed health reform for months after it was clear that he was paying a terrible political price for doing so “never espoused a cause bigger than his own political survival” is absurd on its face. There are many negative things that can and should be said about the White House’s tactics during the fight to enact Obamacare, but Barack Obama chose a difficult and politically dangerous fight and he saw it through to the end. Claiming otherwise is inaccurate.
And Cohen’s critique of Obama suffers from a much larger problem. No one can doubt that the President’s second campaign called for less sweeping reform than his first, but a better writer would have explored how this came to be so. In 2008, Barack Obama was a Washington newcomer, brimming with optimism and more than a little naive about just how easily a political minority can obstruct his agenda, even if his party enjoyed commanding majorities in both houses of Congress. He spent the next four years living the irony that the most powerful man in the United States is often powerless in the face of a determined opposition. Obama didn’t pare down his ambitions because he believes in nothing. He did so because he now knows that if he’d promised sweeping change in 2012 then he’d be lying to the American people.
A better writer might have also criticized the constitutional underpinnings that render American majorities so powerless. Or they could have critiqued Obama for failing to turn swiftly to regulatory solutions after it became clear that his legislative agenda was stalling. Or they could have proposed an alternative agenda that Obama could have campaigned on without exaggerating the limited reach of the presidency. Richard Cohen, however, is not that writer. With a wealth of genuinely difficult questions he could have probed at the peak of his readership’s interest in politics and the presidency, he chose instead to write a column that boils down to ten uninteresting words: “President Obama wants a second term, but can he LEAD?”
I work with 33 very talented writers here at ThinkProgress. Literally every single one of them possesses more insight into American politics and policy than Richard Cohen. The same can be said about thousands of writers that would happily cut off their own foot if it meant the opportunity to have a regular column in the Washington Post.
If the Washington Post were Harvard, I would assume Cohen’s father donated a stadium to the university. How else can one explain his position at the top of a writing ecosystem that includes so many greater talents?