The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Richard Cohen: ‘I Have to Repress a Tear’

Posted on | October 6, 2010 | 6 Comments

It was November 1997 and I’d just been hired as an assistant national editor at the Washington Times. My wife dropped me off at the Shady Grove Metro station for my first day on the job. On my way to the train, I bought a copy of the Washington Post from the paper box, to have something to read on the 40-minute ride to Union Station and arrive at work aware of what stories the competing paper had covered that day.

After scanning the headlines and reading through several of the major news stories, I turned to the op-ed page and encountered a column by Richard Cohen. It was exasperating.

While the topic of that column has long since faded from memory, the wretchedness of Cohen’s self-indulgent style was an insult. Into a single 750-word column, the man had crammed more than 40 uses of the first-person singular.

A columnist’s work should never be a Sequoyah forest of towering “I’s” — I, I, I, I. Whatever the topic of such a column, the subject is the columnist himself: “Here’s what I think about this.”

Well, who the hell are you, and why should we give a damn what you think? People who put their quarters in a newspaper rack have opinions, too, and if you think you’re so much smarter than your readers that they’ll enjoy that “I, I, I, I” stuff, how about offering some evidence of your superior knowledge?

By the time I got to the office, this Richard Cohen column had me so angry that I went into my new boss’s office, waving the newspaper and denouncing the absurdity that anyone would waste ink and paper to insult readers by publishing such an awful specimen of work.

“Oh, Richard Cohen — he’s an idiot,” said the boss. “Just ignore him. Everybody else does.”

There were 21 uses of “I” in Richard Cohen’s column Tuesday, not including his quotations from the chorus of an old Neil Young song: “This summer I hear the drumming. Four dead in Ohio.” Feel free to count Cohen’s uses of “me” and “my,” but you get the point from this excerpt:

I still ride a bike. I do 12 miles, several days a week, and as I do so I listen to music — the Pandora service on my iPhone. I have created a station that plays folk rock. Lately, it has repeatedly played the Neil Young song “Ohio” . . . On the bike, I have to repress a tear. . . .
I had been a reporter back when the killings occurred and it was a huge story to me. I longed for a chance to cover it, but I was young and raw, and the journalistic sluggers whooshed out of the newsroom, hailed a cab, jumped a plane and wrote the story — the story. The story will keep you sane. . . .

Michael Moynihan has declared this “The Worst Column of the Year,” and certainly Cohen has earned the honor.

Cohen isn’t a journalist, he’s a narcissist. He relates his bicycle boo-hoo act — “I have to repress a tear” — in the hope of eliciting admiration for his sensitivity. And you can’t help suspecting that the real reason he gets so choked up by the song is that it reminds him how he didn’t get a chance at that hoped-for byline from Kent State.

I was in fifth grade in May 1970. I don’t own an iPhone and don’t ride a bicycle, but every time I’m reminded that Cohen still gets paid to fill 18 column inches once a week, I have to repress a tear.


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