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 possible 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.