Those of us who dutifully trudge through Richard Cohen's Washington Post column every Tuesday do so for one reason above all others: Once in a great many days, Cohen's work surpasses its usual astonishing incoherence and registers instead as humorously incoherent. And, blessed that some of us are, today is such a day. Cohen begins by asking:
"Just tell me one thing Barack Obama has done that you admire," I asked a prominent Democrat. He paused and then said that he admired Obama's speech to the Democratic convention in 2004. I agreed. It was a hell of a speech, but it was just a speech.
On the other hand, I continued, I could cite four or five actions -- not speeches -- that John McCain has taken that elicit my admiration, even my awe. First, of course, is his decision as a Vietnam prisoner of war to refuse freedom out of concern that he would be exploited for propaganda purposes. To paraphrase what Kipling said about Gunga Din, John McCain is a better man than most.
Three cheers for very, very loose paraphrasing done solely so the writer can mention Kipling! After this intro, it takes Cohen one whole paragraph before the mentions Obama's early opposition to the war--surely something admirable about the senator--but since Cohen intuitively senses that this stance was political, any potential complication to Cohen's thesis is avoided. (Consider, too, whether McCain's "lonely" stances in favor of things like spending restraints are in fact less brave than they appear to Cohen precisely because they lead people like Cohen to give McCain fawning press coverage).
Anyway, Cohen continues on for a bit before this gem of a historical comparison:
Obama is often likened to John F. Kennedy. The comparison makes sense. He has the requisite physical qualities -- handsome, lean, etc. -- plus wit, intelligence, awesome speaking abilities and a literary bent. He also might be compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt for many of those same qualities. Both FDR and JFK were disparaged early on by their contemporaries for, I think, doing the difficult and making it look easy. Eleanor Roosevelt, playing off the title of Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, airily dismissed him as more profile than courage. Similarly, it was Walter Lippmann's enduring misfortune to size up FDR and belittle him: Roosevelt, he wrote, was "a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for office, would very much like to be president." Lippmann later recognized that he had underestimated Roosevelt.
Where to begin? For starters, presumably that "etc" refers to JFK's crippling health problems and bulky back braces (and wasn't FDR in a wheelchair?). FDR should not be described as literary; at the same time, Cohen seems to disapprove of a great, factually correct Eleanor Roosevelt line because...well, because you should not say anything bad about JFK. Cohen concludes:
Still, the record now, while tissue thin, is troubling. The next president will have to be something of a political Superman, a man of steel who can tell the American people that they will have to pay more for less -- higher taxes, lower benefits of all kinds -- and deal in an ugly way when nuclear weapons seize the imagination of madmen.
That is right: Cohen is also a gruff talking tough guy when the times demand it: Higher taxes, lower benefits, sacrifice, a Cheney-esque call for a willingness to "deal in an ugly way" with our enemies. Thank you for having such courage, Richard Cohen! Until next week, then...