Two weeks ago, the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen devoted an entire column to criticizing Barack Obama over his use of a statistic — the senator
January 15, 2008

Two weeks ago, the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen devoted an entire column to criticizing Barack Obama over his use of a statistic — the senator claimed that more young African-American men are in prison than in college — that Cohen insists is false. The columnist used the disputed number, and nothing else, to accuse Obama of “mendacity” and failing to “give a damn” about the truth.

It was a spectacularly dumb column, and an unusually awkward attempt at accusing a presidential candidate of dishonesty. For one thing, Cohen’s piece included obvious errors of fact and judgment. For another, a closer look at the disputed statistic about young African-American men shows that Obama may very well have been correct.

Undeterred, Cohen goes after Obama again yesterday, with an even more ridiculous hit-job.

Barack Obama is a member of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. Its minister, and Obama’s spiritual adviser, is the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. In 1982, the church launched Trumpet Newsmagazine; Wright’s daughters serve as publisher and executive editor. Every year, the magazine makes awards in various categories. Last year, it gave the Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Trumpeter Award to a man it said “truly epitomized greatness.” That man is Louis Farrakhan.

Maybe for Wright and some others, Farrakhan “epitomized greatness.” For most Americans, though, Farrakhan epitomizes racism, particularly in the form of anti-Semitism....

It’s important to state right off that nothing in Obama’s record suggests he harbors anti-Semitic views or agrees with Wright when it comes to Farrakhan. Instead, as Obama’s top campaign aide, David Axelrod, points out, Obama often has said that he and his minister sometimes disagree. Farrakhan, Axelrod told me, is one of those instances.

Fine. But where I differ with Axelrod and, I assume, Obama is that praise for an anti-Semitic demagogue is not a minor difference or an intrachurch issue.

I’ve read Cohen’s piece several times now, trying to understand what possessed him to write it (and what possessed his editors to publish it). I’m at a bit of a loss.

At first blush, there’s clearly a degrees-of-separation problem. Obama belongs to a Christian church. The church has a pastor. The pastor has a daughter. The daughter helps run the church magazine. The magazine featured some praise for Louis Farrakhan last year.

Cohen sees this and insists, in his nationally-syndicated column, that Obama has a personal “obligation to speak out” — not because Obama has been connected with Farrakhan or anti-Semitism in any way, but because his church’s pastor’s daughter’s magazine said something complementary about Farrakhan.

This is utterly ridiculous and Cohen ought to be embarrassed for putting his name on such nonsense.

The Denunciation Game can quickly become a slippery slope. Are Roman Catholic presidential candidates expected to denounce their church’s leaders for every controversial comment or decision it’s made? Mike Huckabee is an evangelical Southern Baptist, and it wouldn’t take too long to come up with a fairly lengthy list of contentious remarks from the church’s leadership. Is it incumbent on Huckabee to disavow them all? Billy Graham has been close with the Clintons. Does Hillary have an “obligation to speak out” against some of Graham’s intemperate remarks?

No, of course not. The very suggestion is silly, and yet, it’s the basis for Cohen’s entire column.

Henry Farrell gets the broader context exactly right.

I strongly suspect that Barack Obama is being asked to condemn Louis Farrakhan not because there’s some bogus two-degrees-of-separation thing going on, but because Barack Obama is black, and because black politicians are supposed to condemn Louis Farrakhan before they can be trusted. This isn’t racism, but it’s an implicit double standard, under which black politicians have a higher hurdle to jump before they deserve public trust than white ones. More generally, this is a bad, wrongheaded, and even dangerous article. Richard Cohen shouldn’t have written it, and the Washington Post shouldn’t have printed it.

If recent history is any guide, Democratic supporters of Obama will take Cohen to task for writing inane tripe, and Democratic critics of Obama will suggest that somehow Cohen has a point.

I’d like to think we can reach a point at which Dems can just be Dems, and criticize stupidity, no matter which Democrat is the target. Cohen’s column should be Exhibit A.

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