Was It Something He Said?

By Mary Ann Akers And Paul Kane
Thursday, June 5, 2008

The grueling Democratic presidential primary season may be over, but the pain is only intensifying for freshman Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a supporter of Sen. Barack Obama whose gaffe last month comparing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to a crazed Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction" has become more of a horror show than he ever expected.

Cohen says he has always prided himself on his advocacy of women's rights but has never felt more dissed by the opposite sex. Paraphrasing his musical idol, the late Warren Zevon, Cohen said he almost wants to "lay my head down on the railroad tracks and wait for the Double E . . . poor, poor pitiful me."

Part of the problem is that the powerful fundraising group Emily's List, which helps elect women who support abortion rights to Congress, made the unusual decision to endorse Cohen's main primary challenger, airline lawyer Nikki Tinker. Tinker has no abortion-rights record; Cohen, one of the most liberal members of the House, has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood's political action committee and has received a "100 percent pro-choice score" from NARAL.

So why the endorsement?

"It's because I'm a man," Cohen says. "And it's a woman thing."

Cohen's second crime was answering a question last month about Clinton's continued candidacy this way: "Glenn Close should have just stayed in the tub." The remark brought a torrent of outrage from women -- including Emily's List members -- and Cohen apologized in very short order.

The congressman is indignant at the treatment he's receiving. "Just a little joke about getting out of the race and all of a sudden I'm a misogynist," Cohen tells us. He says Emily's List, by working to unseat him, is "playing speech police."

Cohen's third transgression was endorsing Obama for president. Emily's List strongly backed Clinton.

Cohen suggests that the group's president, Ellen Malcolm, is punishing him for his choice. "I've been a surrogate of Barack Obama, and I don't think they liked that," he says.

Emily's List doesn't cite Cohen's endorsement of Obama or his comparison of Clinton to Close as reasons for endorsing his opponent. Jonathan Parker, the group's political director, says: "This is not just about Cohen. It's a choice. We think Tinker is a better choice." But he would not say why.

Cohen, who is Jewish, is the only white member of Congress to represent a majority-African American district. Tinker is black. Both race and religion have become factors in the Memphis district contest.

A black minister in Murfreesboro, Tenn., which isn't in Cohen's district, has circulated literature to Cohen's constituents warning: "Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen and the JEWS HATE Jesus." The literature encouraged other black leaders in Memphis to "see to it that one and ONLY one black Christian faces this opponent of Christ and Christianity in the 2008 election."

For now, Cohen is taking solace in a poll showing him leading Tinker 63 percent to 11 percent.

"Yeah, I'm gonna win," he said.

There in Spirit

When senators gathered on the chamber floor Tuesday for their official annual photo, several were noticeably absent: The three presidential candidates -- Clinton, Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.); ailing Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.); and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), who was back home fending off a bitter challenge in the Democratic primary.

It may have been the first time, or certainly one of the very few times, that the nonagenarian Byrd missed the official photo. His office couldn't be sure, and the Senate historian, the Capitol historian and the Senate library did not have records of attendance for the photos.

A traditionalist who reveres the rules as well as the pomp and circumstance of the venerable chamber, Byrd surely would have been front and center Tuesday in his three-piece suit, the chain of his antique gold pocket watch dangling from his vest.

Instead, Byrd the longest-serving senator, was in Inova Fairfax Hospital, where he was admitted Monday with a fever on the same day that Kennedy, the second-longest-serving senator, underwent brain surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. Byrd was feeling much better yesterday, according to his spokesman, Jesse Jacobs. Kennedy remains hospitalized at Duke University Medical Center.

The bad news for the missing senators is that, unlike in years past, when faces were sometimes Photoshopped into the portrait, that won't happen this year.

"The picture is a portrait of the moment," says Senate Sergeant at-Arms Terence Gainer. "It would not be easy and it would look hokey."

Author, Author

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) is the latest entry into the Capitol's authors club.

His memoir, "A Sense of Belonging," will be published Aug. 5 by Random House. Martinez -- whose stint as Republican National Committee chairman lasted just a few months last year -- focuses on his personal history as a boy in Cuba. At 15, without his parents, Martinez fled the island for Florida and was raised in foster homes.

Martinez eventually became a trial lawyer and an Orange County executive before President Bush picked him as his secretary of housing and urban development. Now, 3 1/2 years into his first Senate term, Martinez has recovered nicely from his rocky tenure at the RNC.

Martinez endorsed McCain right before the pivotal Florida primary, providing a boost that helped him win the Sunshine State.

It's no surprise, then, that on Random House's Web site listing for Martinez's book you'll find one John McCain heaping praise on him.

"This remarkable story not only gives a glimpse into the life of a great man, but also reaffirms the notion that in America, anything is possible," the presumptive GOP nominee says.

A Moment of Silence

Yesterday marked the first of what will become regular moments of silence on the House floor to pay tribute to the troops who have died or been wounded in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ever the thorn in Bush's side, Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) came up with the idea. The House's most antiwar Republican, Jones has been sharply critical of the president's handling of Iraq and supports an immediate withdrawal.

But Jones says this is not meant as a political statement, just a small way to pay respect once a month to the fallen and wounded.

"For their courage and selfless commitment to duty, these service members, and their families, deserve our unending support," Jones said Tuesday on the House floor.

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