Whom the gods would destroy they first give a newspaper column.
It would seem to be a simple task to buff one's reflections, observations, and opinions to an 800-word sparkle twice a week, yet the job cores the skulls of all but the stoutest, most resourceful writers. The perceptive reporter turns into a bar-emptying bore, the meticulous stylist into a pompous hack, and the shrewd thinker into a merchant of flapdoodle.
This ruination threatens to claim Roger Cohen, who joined the New York Times op-ed page's rotation last summer when Nicholas D. Kristof took book leave. No newcomer to the craft, Cohen has been a columnist for the International Herald Tribune—the Times' sister paper—since 2004. His recent work establishes new standards for the aggressive pursuit of the trite.
Yesterday's column, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Musharraf" (Nov. 8), rewinds Pakistan's current events before handing off to his source, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad, for the stirring conclusion. "Afghanistan and Pakistan need each other. The moderates of both countries must work together," Khalilzad tells him. Yes! Yes! Afghanistan completes Pakistan! Moderates must work with moderates for moderation! Why didn't I think of that?
At least Cohen didn't resort to the threadbare cliché of constructing the piece as a faux conversation or speech, as so many Times columnists love to do. Whoops! I forgot that Cohen did just that in his Nov. 5 column, "From Paris With Love," which imagines a dialogue between George W. Bush ("Yo, Sarko!") and Nicolas Sarkozy ("Bonjour, George!"). I demand legislation banning this tired device from the pages of the Times.
As Cohen jettisons his internal editor, the information content of his columns approaches zero. His Nov. 1 column, "Afghanistan at the Brink," datelined Kabul, dares the reader to wade through a mush of platitudes without so much as a prize for reading the whole thing. He writes:
With Afghanistan at a tipping point, the next U.S. president will face an enduring challenge here of immense proportions. He or she must level with the American people, in a way President Bush never has, about the real burden of an attempt to build two countries from scratch at once. That burden can no longer be borne by military families alone, however much Iraqi extrication is achieved.
Tipping point … the next U.S. president … enduring challenge … immense proportions … must level … the American people … the real burden. Does Cohen pay the Scotty Reston estate royalties for his copy?
His Oct. 29 column from Bamiyan, Afghanistan, laments the destruction of the 1,500-year-old Buddha sculptures by the Taliban, which he visited in 1973 as a young man on the "hippie trail." He concludes, writing of the area's children, "I fear for their world, and ours, but fear is not the answer."
He's right. Fear is never the answer when the exhausted columnist needs a quick finish for a piece that doesn't really have a point. Hope is the answer.
I'd have more tolerance for Cohen's failings as a columnist if the page had recruited him from the ranks of presidential speechwriters and he was just learning to write, but the 52-year-old Cohen has punched his passport as a reporter in Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Italy, Belgium, France, the Balkans, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Peru, Venezuela, and Zeus knows where else for the Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Reuters. He should know better than to write so poorly, and the page should know better than to run him.
Can Cohen be saved before Kristof returns? Send your suggestions for his redemption to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)