By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
When the Pulitzer committee called to say that I had won the prize for being the only syndicated columnist, or for that matter touch-typist, who had not had an exclusive interview with Barack Obama, I was shocked. I had to check to see if indeed I had not exclusively interviewed the president and, if I had, what he had said and, if I hadn't -- which turned out to be the case -- how it had happened.
I checked my records and diaries and discovered that I had been offered many opportunities to exclusively interview the president, but only after he had been exclusively interviewed by all the other columnists and bloggers and, of course, the anchors of all the networks, including cable -- basic as well as premium. A review of the record showed that the president usually said nothing or nearly so, and indeed things have gotten to the point that when I see Obama on TV, I hurry on to another channel, even one with a Maury Povich rerun. I recently came across Anderson Cooper, who was interviewing Obama in Africa or some such place, and after noticing how they were both so trim, I quickly channel-surfed my way to Animal Planet. I knew I had not missed anything important.
For a person of my age, this was a sea change, or maybe a watershed or even a tsunami -- something big and aquatic. There was a time when I would have jumped at the chance for an exclusive interview with the president of the United States and would have watched with immense interest or great anxiety if his visage appeared on the screen. It meant war or price controls or maybe a refusal to seek another term. Presidents once were awesome figures, and just to interview one of them was enough to win a Pulitzer Prize.
In truth, I did not seek an exclusive interview with the president of the United States not only because I wanted to write something that would be noticed but also -- actually mainly -- because I feared that if I did get an exclusive interview I would be expected to ask him something about health-care reform, about which I know next to nothing. What was worse, despite reading six newspapers a day, watching cable news shows, network news shows, the "NewsHour" and being online all the livelong day, I could not fathom what the president wants to do with health care. I suppose this is all my fault since, I learn from reading my e-mails, almost everything is.
As far as I could figure out, the president turned over health-care reform to about 24 committees of the House and about eight committees of the Senate, and they have all come up with plans that simultaneously sell out to the private sector and yet somehow socialize medicine . . . as we know it. They are also partisan, nonpartisan, bipartisan (don't ask, don't tell) and in the out years -- and at the end of the day -- mind-numbingly boring. I am thinking outside the box here.
For me, health-care reform is Missiles Redux -- specifically the Reagan-era disputes over SS-20s and such, not to mention throw-weight, which is measured in kilograms or metric tons, whatever they are. I was expected to know something about such matters, being a Washington columnist and all, but I could never keep the damn terms and numbers straight. I would bone up, talk to the experts, read the stupefying reports, write the requisite column -- and promptly forget it all. The Soviet Union collapsed anyway.
Now it is health care. As a single (actually, divorced) payer, I cannot for the life of me figure out why Obama did not simply expand Medicare, lowering the eligible age until everyone was covered. This would take one House committee and one Senate committee and one news conference. It would both provide your average patriotic American with health insurance and keep Obama off TV. This is known as a win-win.
Lucky for me, this has not been done, and so I have been ducking that call from the White House, inviting me to exclusively spend the day with the president, exclusively interview the president or -- this would be really hard to turn down -- exclusively sneak a smoke with him in the Situation Room. My Pulitzer is coming because I alone have not interviewed the president. It turns out, that's an exclusive.