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Richard Cohen

Caricature References

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, December 23, 2004; Page A23

Newsweek reports that at a Washington dinner party I had an encounter with George Tenet, the former director of the CIA, whom I had earlier that day called "incompetent" and a "failure." Newsweek reports that Tenet exclaimed, "Hey, what did I ever do to you?" and then mockingly asked if I wanted to step outside. Newsweek, however, does not report what happened next: Tenet and I talked about our mothers.

His, an ethnic Greek, escaped from Albania during World War II. The rest of her family perished. At 86 she lives in Queens, the New York borough where I grew up, and has the uncanny ability to dissect a complex political situation and offer her son wise advice. Quite a woman. Quite a story.

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My own mother also escaped from Europe, although "escaped" might not be precisely the right word. She left with her mother, sister and brother at the end of 1920. Had she stayed, she almost certainly would have been murdered, either in the forest at the edge of her town or at the nearby Nazi death camp of Treblinka. Closing in on 93, she, too, is quite a woman with quite a story.

It cannot come as news to you that both Tenet and I have mothers and yet, in some way, maybe it does. The banal commonalities that make us all in some way family often get overlooked nowadays. Public figures, especially government officials, somehow get turned into caricatures -- not real people but virtual cardboard cutouts, complete with labels: liberal, conservative, red, blue, pro-life, pro-choice, as if life itself were one of those TV shows where you have to be one thing or another, never a bit of both. When, for instance, I wrote a column suggesting that Bernard Kerik was a bad choice for secretary of homeland security, I got a bucket full of obscene e-mails right in my face. I was denounced over and over again as a liberal who, moreover, never would have written something similar about anyone Bill Clinton had named. This would be news to Clinton.

What struck me about the e-mails was how none of these writers paid any attention to what I had to say. Instead, they preferred to deal with a caricature -- someone who belonged to a movement, a conspiracy, and was taking orders in the service of some vast, nefarious cause. E-mails are the drive-by shootings of the common man. The face of the victim is never seen.

Talk radio is similar. The invective, the simplicities, the need for controversy and the us-against-them nature of the format are downright dehumanizing. No one is ever merely mistaken but rather is "wrong" in a moral sort of way -- a flawed human being at best, downright evil at worst. It's all nonsense, of course. We have become a nation of B-52 bombers, hitting targets we never see. Even the after-hours camaraderie of Washington is gone. Republicans hang with Republicans, Democrats with Democrats -- and they all get out of town as fast as possible. A little bourbon would do wonders for our dysfunctional government.

The reason I started with the startling scoop that George Tenet has a mother is that too often, especially in Washington, it is easier to avoid such humanizing touches than to deal with them. Like Will Rogers, I (almost) never met a man I didn't like -- and after that, honest, rigorous criticism becomes very hard indeed. It is easier by far to turn government officials from conscientious public servants, or even just hapless human beings, into mere celebrities. But they don't make big money in their jobs (though some, of course, do later on), and they almost always work very hard. And when they screw up it often appears on the front pages of newspapers or on the nightly news. Sometimes, when things are dark and people are dying, they sit before the TV and watch what they have done -- and cry. They do, and I know this for a fact.

The year is ending, and this is my final column of 2004. I have taken my share of potshots and dealt in caricatures -- and I am sorry for that. Mostly, though, I try to keep in mind that the people who run the government, even the ones I oppose, are not evil or malicious and are just trying to do a difficult job. I take nothing back and vow to be even tougher in the coming year, but in the meantime, and in the spirit of the season, I'd like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year -- including, of course, Evangelia Tenet of Queens, New York.

I've heard such wonderful things about her.


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