Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Richard Cohen and the Fabulous Hair

I've been compiling material for a post on Richard Cohen for a while now, mainly because he's emblematic of a certain brand of thinking set of attitudes among the Village punditocracy. His column yesterday, "The Mendacity of Hope: What We Want to Believe About Obama" starts with a doozy:

John Edwards lied about the cost of his haircuts. Fred Thompson lied about lobbying for a pro-choice outfit. John McCain insists that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation." Mitt Romney concocted the story about how his father marched with Martin Luther King Jr. And Rudy Giuliani is a one-man fib machine -- everything from why he had to provide police protection for his then-mistress to the survivability rates for prostate cancer in Britain. Yet it is something Barack Obama said that bothers me most of all because Obama is a new kind of politician. He is supposed to be coolly authentic.

What the hell is he talking about when he says Edwards "lied about the cost of his haircuts"...? As Greg Sargent notes, both Steve Benen and Atrios have correctly called Cohen's claim false, and Sargent has written Cohen for an explanation.

As it so happens, I've got a good idea of what Cohen means. He made the same ridiculous claim in his column on 7/24/07, "He Just Plays a Straight Shooter." In that piece, Cohen starts by calling out Fred Thompson for lying about his lobbying for a "family-planning outfit." Then, showing Broder-esque "balance," Cohen writes:

Lest you think I am some sort of partisan hack, I have similar misgivings about John Edwards and his $400 haircuts. Here, too, the issue is not what he paid his barber but his apparent willingness to trim the truth. He can't -- I can't stop myself -- brush that away.

Not that Edwards hasn't tried. His spokeswoman, Colleen Murray, also attempted the old disparagement trick, comparing the haircut imbroglio with matters of cosmic importance. "Breaking news -- John Edwards got some expensive haircuts and probably didn't pay enough attention to the bills," she said. "He didn't lie about weapons of mass destruction or spring Scooter Libby; he just got some expensive haircuts."

Yes, he did. And he got them over and over again, sometimes summoning hairstylist Joseph Torrenueva of Beverly Hills to appointments on the campaign trail. When that happened, Edwards had to pay not only for the haircut but for Torrenueva's airfare and hotel as well. A session during the 2004 race cost $1,250. On at least one occasion, Edwards paid the $400 personally.

Contrast this detailed account of Edwards's relationship with Torrenueva with the candidate's initial explanation. Edwards said he had no idea that the haircuts were so expensive and -- in a reprise of Bill Clinton's reference to Monica Lewinsky as "that woman" -- called Torrenueva "that guy." You do not talk about your hairstylist like that. "When he called me 'that guy,' that hit my ears. It hurt," Torrenueva told The Post's John Solomon.

Edwards and Thompson have something in common: They both are all image. Neither has accomplished very much in public life.

This is mind-numbingly insipid stuff. Not only is Cohen obsessing about inconsequential trivia like a third-rate gossip columnist, he doesn't even prove his case. As far as I can tell, Cohen claims Edwards "lied" about his haircuts because Edwards didn't include the airfare when talking about the cost, and because he distanced himself from Torrenueva. In Cohen's world, this is a "lie," and morally equivalent to misrepresenting one's anti-abortions bona fides to the GOP faithful to get their votes or lying about weapons of mass destruction to start a war. It's the sort of maddening false equivalency major media figures traffic in all the time.

But Richard Cohen is no "partisan hack." No, one has to be supposed liberal at a major media outlet, such as Cohen or Joe Klein, for work of this quality.

I doubt many readers of liberal blogs are unfamiliar with the obsession at The Washington Post, Politico and other outlets over John Edwards' haircuts, but if you want a quick recap of some of the recent lunacy, here's Messrs. Benen, Sargent and Somerby (with a Somerby follow-up here).

Cohen often offers logic worthy of Jonah Goldberg, but it's worth noting the similarities between the July column and the one yesterday. Although some of the specifics differ, Benen's critique of yesterday's piece applies quite well to both:

One gets the impression that Cohen, who’s been around long enough to know better, just casually threw in some accusations of dishonesty in the hopes of achieving some kind of “balance.” Regrettably he did so a) without getting his facts straight; and b) in a column about the importance of people getting their facts straight.

It’s really not a good way to start out the new year.

And what of Obama’s “lie” [that there are more young black men are in prison than in college]?...

Now, if this is right, and Obama repeated a bogus statistic, he’s in the wrong, no doubt about it. There have been far more dramatic lies from presidential candidates, and this one seems largely inconsequential, but would-be presidents should strive for 100% accuracy, regardless of party…

But Cohen applies a standard here that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

When John McCain sticks to his insistence that the Constitution established the United States as a “Christian nation,” I don’t like it, but I know McCain and I know his character. He has a record in public life going back, essentially, to 1967, when he was shot down over Vietnam and repeatedly tortured by his captors. Back in 2000, I might have gotten a bit “delusional” over him, but I had my reasons.

I see. So, McCain lied, even though he didn’t, and that’s fine, because Cohen has known him for a long while. Obama cited a bogus statistic, and that’s worth an entire column, because Cohen hasn’t known him very long.

Cohen seems to be invoking some sort of Droit de seigneur, whereby he doesn't need to make a coherent argument, only assert his authority (as well as McCain's). That's important because there's one other key similarity between July's column and the current one. It's this paragraph from yesterday, where Cohen writes:

After all, it ought to be true that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It ought to be true that he had ties with Osama bin Laden. It ought to be true that aluminum tubes were intended for a nuclear weapons program, and it ought to be true, really, that none of this mattered since what mattered most of all was a larger truth: Hussein had to go and the Middle East had to be urban-renewed for the sake of democracy.

I'm uncertain as to what exactly Cohen means by "ought" here, but by every interpretation I can see, he's wrong. It's not true that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, nor is it true that they should have had them. The same goes for the rest of his claims. If anything, the real "ought" is that we ought not to have invaded Iraq in the first place. Oh, and the Bush administration "ought" not to have lied, and Cohen "ought" not to have believed them. American troops and Iraqis "ought" not to be dead. But Cohen's construction here absolves him of culpability. Note that Cohen poo-pooed the whole "lying about WMD" back in July, too.

Cohen, of course, was an ardent war hawk disdainful of those who weren't, and he was snowed by the Bush administration's case for war, although many of us weren't. When he says "ought," I believe he really means "I wish I had been right, and I had good reason to think that." The truth is, there were plenty of reasons to distrust the Bush administration's arguments, even for those of us not privy to classified intelligence (that's not to mention the importance of a general skepticism toward war in the first place). The truth is, the cost of a haircut or statistics about African-Americans in prison versus higher education are not nearly as important as starting an unnecessary war, and the resulting, devastating cost of treasure, prestige and most of all, human lives. Even if we grant Cohen that all three are "mistakes," it's extremely offensive to equate them. Pretending all lies are the same, feigning that all mistakes are the same, harping on Obama and libeling Edwards doesn't erase Cohen's own sins.

The supposed point of Cohen's piece, about Obama, is trivial at best. However, his subtext and asides are extremely important, because they betray those Beltway pundit attitudes and ethics Cohen so perfectly embodies. Cohen blithely, falsely accuses Edwards of lying, and since he leads with that, apparently he feels no need to explain it. Meanwhile, it seems he still hasn't learned much from his disastrous judgment on the Iraq War. Steve Benen's exactly right; it's going to be a long year.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


Anonymous said...

Let's not forget the elephant in the room regarding this column. Cohen talks about "bigger truth" that makes being wrong about the Iraq war OK. Of course, his "bigger truth" is as false as any of the so called evidence for war.

But what astounds me is that he actually points out Obama's bigger truth (that black males are in a desperate situation in this country), then goes on to claim he has none.

I haven't seen such self-absorbed and oblivious smuggness since high school.

Batocchio said...

Anonymous, that's a very good point. The larger truth just isn't as important as quibbles to him, on any of a number of issues, but all of them important. You've hit on a trend I wanted to explore in my longer post on him. Thanks!

I've always thought of Cohen as more of a dippy, shallow fellow than smug, which I associate more with the similar Joe Klein, but yeah, there is a smugness there. Cohen especially has seemed shocked that anyone, especially those foul-mouthed liberal bloggers, would question his, um, "wisdom."

Batocchio said...

I should add that it's pretty damn striking how much the social dynamics of the punditocracy resemble high school (there are some great pieces on it).

The pundits always want to play kingmaker, and their judgment is unfailingly horrendous. Bush, not once, but twice?!? It's really rather appalling that for choosing someone for the most powerful job in the world, we have such shallow, vapid, petty people controlling the public discourse.

David Terrenoire said...

I'm rarely moved to write letters of annoyance to columnists, but I did write to Cohen shortly after we discovered there were no WMDs.

Cohen made the case that no one could have suspected there were no WMDs because his regular dinner companions were all convinced they were there.

I suggested he eat with smerter people.

David Terrenoire said...

or smarter.

(Truly smart people know how to spell.)

Fran said...

Richard Cohen gets me going and not at all in a good way.

His use of ought, as you pointed out means... ????

Anonymous has made a good point about the "bigger truths".

Great post!

SomeNYGuy said...

Don't you guys know the rules? It's okay if you're a war-mongering RepubliCohen!