Richard Cohen has a knack for making venom-spewing enemies out of people who should be his allies.
Like on Tuesday, when The Washington Post columnist wrote about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s chances in the 2016 Iowa Republican caucuses and took a detour to consider Bill de Blasio, New York City’s newly elected mayor, and his multiracial family:
“People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.”
The baying for Cohen’s head on the Internet quickly ensued — primarily from liberals who might otherwise consider Cohen, who has been a left-of-center presence on the newspaper’s op-ed page for a generation, one of their own.
The Huffington Post slapped a big photo of Cohen, 72, on its media page and roared, “Dear Washington Post: Please Fire This Man.”
Esquire.com columnist Charles Pierce fumed, “If Newspaper Stupid had a top 40, Richard Cohen would be the Beatles in 1965.”
There was more critical coverage, from, among others, the Atlantic, Salon, Gawker, Slate, MSNBC.com and even The Post’s Wonkblog, which helpfully pointed out that 87 percent of Americans in a Gallup survey this year approved of interracial marriage. As such, Salon.com’s columnist, Alex Pareene, suggested that Cohen’s notion that “conventional” people “gag” at the sight of the de Blasios “reveal a man very much out of touch with this era and deeply discomfited by it. (They also reveal a man who is terrified of black people.)”
Cohen begs to differ. Strongly.
“I don’t understand it,” said the columnist, who lives in New York City. “What I was doing was expressing not my own views but those of extreme right-wing Republican tea party people. I don’t have a problem with interracial marriage or same-sex marriage. In fact, I exult in them. It’s a slander” to suggest otherwise. “This is just below the belt. It’s a purposeful misreading of what I wrote.”
He added, “I think it’s reprehensible to say that because you disagree with something that you should fire me. That’s what totalitarians do.”
Cohen’s boss, Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt, defends his man in this latest flap this way: “Anyone reading Richard’s entire column will see he is just saying that some Americans still have a hard time dealing with interracial marriage.” But Hiatt takes some of the heat himself, saying, “I erred in not editing that one sentence more carefully to make sure it could not be misinterpreted.”
This isn’t the first time the liberal blogosphere has been upset about Cohen. His columns on a host of political, racial and cultural subjects have irregularly driven his critics to apoplexy as well as accusations of sexism and racism. Cohen, for example, got a vehemently negative reaction this summer when he touched on George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin by writing: “I don’t like what George Zimmerman did, and I hate that Trayvon Martin is dead. But I also can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize.”
Perhaps his most infamous column was one in the Sunday Magazine in 1986 — Cohen has been writing a column for The Post since 1976 — that suggested that Georgetown store owners were justified in locking out young black customers because they were afraid of being robbed. That column helped inspire a campaign by local radio personality Cathy Hughes in which outraged readers dumped copies of the magazine at The Post’s front door.
Cohen says he inspires strong passions because he’s willing to veer from liberal orthodoxy on racial or cultural topics. “People feel strongly about these things, and they feel the need to punish you if you don’t agree,” he said. “I remember years ago an editor said to me, ‘You can’t write that because you’re a liberal.’ But it’s my view, and it’s not a doctrinaire view. So I write what I think. I’m also supposed to be provocative, not synthetically provocative, but provocative enough to make people think.”
Cohen said he still enjoys writing his weekly column and intends to keep at it as long as the paper will have him. Or “until Gawker sends over a hit man,” he said.
As for The Post dumping Cohen, don’t count on it.
“Richard doesn’t reliably follow any political line,” Hiatt said. “He also isn’t afraid to take on subjects where culture and politics and emotion overlap. Those traits make him a compelling, and one of our best-read, columnists. They also, not surprisingly, at times lead to controversy.”