Richard Cohen, Meet Helen Thomas

Did the Washington Post columnist just call most of America racist?
Sigrid Estrada/The Washington Post

When veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas retired at 89, after telling a video camera-wielding reporter from RabbiLive.com that Israel should "get the hell out of Palestine," the generous interpretation was that the trailblazing female reporter had erred in not quitting sooner.

Richard Cohen of The Washington Post today finds himself in similar circumstances. But instead of becoming a viral-video sensation based on an offensive off-the-cuff riff, he has deliberately chosen over the past year to stake out a series of controversial positions on hot-button racial questions that have eroded the reservoir of public good will toward his work when it comes to interpreting his views on race. He supported New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's stop-and-frisk policy, said "racial profiling" was "proof not of racism" but of the demographics of gun crime, called Trayvon Martin "a young man understandably suspected because he was black," and recently recalled growing up in a world where "I learned that slavery was wrong, yes, that it was evil, no doubt, but really, that many blacks were sort of content. Slave owners were mostly nice people—fellow Americans, after all."

Now the results of that erosion are on plain display.

The most generous interpretation of Cohen's astonishing statement in a column today that "People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York—a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children" is that he was incorrectly imputing views to others that he does not hold himself. But the fact is that 87 percent of Americans, according to Gallup, do not hold the views Cohen suggests are "conventional."

Even in the Deep South, such views are no longer conventional. Fewer than a third of likely Republican primary voters—core conservative GOP voters—in Mississippi and Alabama continue to think inter-racial marriages should be illegal, according to a 2012 PPP survey.

No wonder there's so much outrage greeting Cohen's abrupt aside in a column otherwise about Chris Christie: Cohen in his column took pains to suggest that "Today’s GOP is not racist"—but then went on to blithely suggest that most of America is, instead.

Cohen, who joined the Post in 1968 (when opposition to black-white marriages was conventional—only about 20 percent of Americans then approved of them, according to Gallup) and became an op-ed columnist in 1984, has now been at the paper longer than former publisher Donald Graham. Graham joined the Post in 1971, the same year as Bob Woodward, and sold the publication to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos in the spring. Graham was recently feted at a retirement party by more than 600 current and former Posties, who affirmed his standing as beloved leader.

Cohen's send-off, when it comes, is going to be a quieter affair. "Richard Cohen just wrote his retirement notice," tweeted media critic Jack Shafer Tuesday. The only question how long it takes Cohen to realize this.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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