What is Richard Cohen Talking About?

I’m actually kind of curious if anyone at the Washington Post knows, or even cares, what Richard Cohen is talking about. I mean, here are three sentences from his latest column that are a bit puzzling:

Among the attributes I most envy in a public man (or woman) is the ability to lie… I admire a smooth liar, and Romney is among the best. …He commands the heights of great assurance, and he knows, as some of us learn too late in life, that the truth is not always a moral obligation but sometimes merely what works.

Is Cohen exhibiting his famous sense of humor here? Is this no more than an epic failure at snark?

On one level, Cohen is using his column to call Mitt Romney a gigantic liar. Yet, at least ostensibly, Cohen is also praising Romney for his extraordinary ability to prevaricate. The last sentence is truly opaque. Is Cohen saying that “what works” is a moral obligation even when it is a lie, or is he is saying that sometimes “the truth” is what works? Is there an editor (and a psychologist) in the house?

The default assumption of normal, healthy humans is that lying is bad. Is Cohen trying to tell that we’re wrong? Here’s his conclusion:

A marathon of debates and an eon of campaigning have toughened and honed Romney. He commands the heights of great assurance, and he knows, as some of us learn too late in life, that the truth is not always a moral obligation but sometimes merely what works. He often cites his business background as commending him for the presidency. That’s his forgivable absurdity. Instead, what his career has given him is the businessman’s concept of self — that what he does is not who he is. This is what enables the slumlord to be a charitable man. This is what enables the corporate raider to endow his university. Business is business. It’s what you do. It is not who you are. Lying isn’t a sin. It’s a business plan.

This isn’t presented as a cynical observation. There is no visible protrusion of the tongue into the cheek. We can only infer sarcasm or irony by assuming that Cohen couldn’t possibly mean what he appears to be saying. This isn’t how comedy is supposed to work.

But maybe the only comedy here is that Fred Hiatt continues to give Richard Cohen a paycheck.

14 comments for “What is Richard Cohen Talking About?

  1. rae
    April 18, 2012 at 7:27 pm

    I thought that the real columnar travesty today was Thomas Friedman urging Bloomberg to run so he can implement what is basically the Obama agenda (but presumably with less populist rhetoric). Speaking of lying, is someone like Friedman really so ignorant of political realities that he doesn’t know that a third party run will have the exact opposite effect–by splitting the democratic/moderate vote and ensuring a republican victory?

  2. April 18, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    …if anyone at the Washington Post knows, or even cares, what Richard Cohen is talking about….

    no, and no.

    cohen’s talking to himself and the rest of the cocktail weenie circuit, trying to find a way to rationalize their slowly emerging realization that romney’s a douche bag of the highest order, and that they’re sooner, rather than later, going to be tasked with ‘splainin’ why he’s electable.

    lotsa luck with that, eh.

    this addition of simple answers to simple questions has been brought to you by who gives a shit™.

  3. April 18, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Booman,
       When (if) a person is being sarcastic, then everything they say should be the opposite of what they mean. Charles Pierce is pretty smart, and he read this straight and cynical. Nevertheless I found it very hard NOT to read it as sarcasm, but what keeps throwing me is that Cohen praises Ryan and his budget as honest and sorely needed, and that at least I think he really means seriously.
       So in the end I didn’t get it either, and I’m obviously not the only one.
       Sometimes what happens is, somebody’s sets out to write snark, then throws in a few bits that he actually means, which crashes te entire effect. Maybe that’s what happened here.

  4. April 18, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    I think he’s just taking the prevailing American morality to its conclusion. We admire liars, from Wall Street crooks to Cheney to Colin Powell to Clinton to the 3-card monte guy on the bus. Nobody doesn’t lie. The ageless conundrum is to weigh the effect of the lie and its intent against the damage it causes.

    In Romney’s case, I guess Republicans will convince themselves that the end justifies the lies. The media will continue to dismiss his reflexive lying as kinda cute, and will continue to disneyfy inadvertent self-exposure of the lie as a “gaffe”.

    Character is much yammered about but of no political consequence in this society. When attention is focused on a political/media/celebrity lie, it’s almost always an inconsequential one. Cohen is just reflecting the prevailing view — I don’t see that that’s a reason to attack him in this case. He’s done much worse.

  5. April 18, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    at times.

    For instance, when the Seal team was looking for Osama, someone asked him if there were any new things going on with Osama, and Obama, without a single bit of effort, lied and said “Nothing”.

    This was a good thing. It is very important to tell the Truth, and the truth sometimes means that you lie about little things. The Truth does not always require truth about everything. This is the notion of the white lie, or the lie told to a murderer looking for a person to kill. Such lies are good.

    Romney simply lies about everything. He is a promiscuous liar, not a moral liar. And that is the point of Cohen’s column.

    If you cannot tell the difference between a good and bad lie, you are no student of politics. Some lies are necessary.

  6. April 18, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    Republicans only care about winning–effective lying is strategic, hence the praise.

  7. April 18, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    we need someone to check – is hell freezing over?

  8. April 18, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    Why I Am Not A Deficit Hawk

    David Frum sounds like Atrios…except maybe his defense blathering. But overall, wtf has gotten into him?

  9. April 18, 2012 at 11:45 am

    The established media thinks lying is a skill.  Case in point Judy Miller.  It’s a macho form of jaded worldliness.

  10. April 18, 2012 at 11:44 am

    Romney is being praised as a real-politician in the Kissinger  mould. What matters in this world view is not some kind of morality, but the concept of interests. You do what is in your own interests. Nations act in their own interests. The truth is merely whatever advances those interests best.  

    Consequently Romney changing  his political positions is merely a reflection of his changing political interests.  You do whatever it takes to maximise your power/vote/wealth at any given point in time. In this sense Romney has been telling the truth ALL THE TIME. He is merely getting better and more skilled at it –  in Cohen’s view.

    The fact that so many people can see that Romney is entirely amoral  however appears to indicate the opposite. A skilled liar is one who is difficult to find out. As the Hollywood mogul said  “The most important thing in life is Sincerity. When you can fake that, you’ve got it made”.

  11. April 18, 2012 at 11:33 am

    Just read the column, and I’m pretty sure this was tongue-in-cheek.

  12. April 18, 2012 at 11:18 am

    Interestingly this comes after a segment on Rachel’s show using clips to show how Romney chooses to lie even under the most benign circumstances. DNC used parts of her segment in a just released ad against Romney to call him out.

    Cohen, like most media don’t know how to talk about  Mitt’s lying and so he stumbles unevenly into the question that should be at everyone’s headlines. Even Louis Gomert in a panel this weekend, when asked if he supported Mitt, managed to Freudian slip his way along supported by loud laughter from the panel, as he suggested that no matter what your political views are Romney has supported them at one time or another.

  13. April 18, 2012 at 11:15 am

    […] the truth is not always a moral obligation but sometimes merely what works.

    To me it sounds like he read the Quantum Theory of Mitt Romney and it literally blew his mind.

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