Politics » Politics Feature

Cohen's Close Encounters: An Election-Eve Battle on Two Fronts



Even as one 5 o'clock local newscast was summing up a bizarre development in the 9th District congressional race as a matter of incumbent congressman Steve Cohen "losing his cool," a veteran observer, looking at the same scenario from an ideological and disinterested distance, saw the case in point in another light altogether.

"I think it probably helped Cohen," said John Ryder, a well-known local Republican and a GOP national committeeman. Like numerous other Memphians, Ryder saw the TV footage of the congressman physically ousting an uninvited Tinker supporter who, posing as a photo-journalist and documentarian, was attempting to infiltrate a group of newsmen convened at Cohen's Midtown residence for a press conference.

"Maybe it's a guy thing, and it goes beyond black and white," said an admiring Ryder. "I think all of us around here realize that you can't just meekly put up with the presence of a hostile invader in your own household."

Cohen's close encounter occurred on the eve of what he hopes will be a vote of confidence in Thursday's Democratic primary. The set-to with Peter Musurlian, a Californian of Armenian descent, occurred near the beginning of the Wednesday morning press conference, called by the congressman to rebut the second of two unusually virulent attack ads this week from opponent Nikki Tinker.

Given the nature of the response to the new ad, which caused Tinker to be all but repudiated by a major supporter, Cohen may have come out ahead on that front as well.

A New Attack

Challenger Tinker's first ad, appearing over the weekend, had criticized Cohen for withholding support from a proposal to disinter the late Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. Among other things, the commercial yoked the congressman's image to that of a hooded Klansman. The new ad, beginning with the voice-over of a child at prayer, asserted that "the real Steve Cohen" was not the man who is "in OUR churches clapping his hands and tapping his feet" but "the Senator who thought OUR kids shouldn't be allowed to pray in school."

It was arguable whether the "OUR " denoted "African-American" or "Christian" or perhaps both, though the respected pundit Joshua Marshall of the Talking Points Memo Web site was among several observers who wasted no time pronouncing "anti-Semitism" to be at the heart of the ad.

The two ads together meanwhile earned Tinker the stern disapproval of the feminist PAC Emily's List, which makes a point of supporting women running for public office and had been one of her major nominal sources of support. Said "Ellen Malcolm, the group's president: "We were shocked to see the recent ads run by the Nikki Tinker for Congress campaign. We believe the ads are offensive and divisive. EMILY's List does not condone or support these types of attacks." (Though Tinker has not, as of yet, been dropped altogether from the pro-choice group's roster of endorsees, she has been removed from the "Featured Candidates" section on the Emily's List Web site.)

Cohen had begun explaining to the journalists gathered in his den his objections to Tinker's new ad (among other things, he called himself "a supporter of school prayer" and maintained that the 1997 state Senate vote alluded to in the ad concerned a technical church-state issue), when there were sounds of a disturbance in an adjoining room.

That turned out to be Musurlian, who had been in Memphis this week confronting Cohen in the course of the congressman's scheduled campaign events. Cohen would later say that Musurlian has been stalking him in retaliation for his role in defeating a House resolution that would have formally condemned Turkey for its genocide against ethnic Armenians almost a century ago. The Armenian activist had gained entry into Cohen's house and, claiming to be a legitimate media representative, was involved in a heated argument with two of the congressman's aides, who tried to prevent him from disrupting the press conference.

Ultimately Cohen himself, clearly perturbed, entered the anteroom and, in the course of a shouting match, partly coaxed Musurlian and partly shoved him through a doorway and out of the house. "He's out of here. Let's start over," Cohen said. He then resumed the press conference as scheduled - though he and everyone else present knew that its subject matter had been superseded.

So Who Came Out Ahead?

What Musurlian gained from all of the above was some random video of the unfriendly encounter which presumably can be put to use by assorted Armenian pressure groups in their continuing full-court press against Cohen's reelection campaign. (Should such footage prove usable, however, it would possibly undermine Musurlian's claim that Cohen or his aides had managed to "break" his video-camera.)

The Armenian also got the chance to speak at length about his cause in an impromptu press conference of his own across the street from Cohen's house afterwards. Mursulian confirmed that supporters of the Armenian cause like himself had contributed to Tinker's congressonal campaign (to the tune, Cohen would tell his press conference attendees, of $30,000). He said that Cohen had been targeted not merely because of his opposition to the resolution condemning Turkey but because the freshman Memphis congressman had been a leader in quashing it.

What Cohen gained from the encounter was, first of all, the opportunity to vent against a group -- mainly composed of "outsiders," he said - who had been tormenting him for weeks through a variety of means, including longish, literal-minded non-sequitur screeds in the blogosphere. He also got a chance to affirm that, while he was against the war in Iraq, he wanted to safeguard and provision the American troops there. He said his position on the Armenian resolution had been partly determined by advice from General David Petraeus, commander of the ground war, who had stressed to Cohen the importance of not alienating the Turks, de facto allies who maintained a reliable supply line to American forces in Iraq.

Cohen may also, as the Ryder comment indicates, have earned some macho points for his do-it-yourself eviction - especially since Musurlian was, on the clear evidence of the widely seen video, a stout sort who enjoyed several pounds and more than a few years on the slightly built, middle-aged congressman.

It was somewhat harder to see what down-in-the-polls challenger Tinker may have gained from the day's events - though her new ad, coupled with her previous one, may have helped cement her pre-existing hold on those voters for whom racial and religious loyalties outweigh all other factors. But she has clearly lost traction with such undecided voters, black and white, as subscribe to the amenities of polite discourse - elements of which, in shadow form, survive even in politics. Even Tinker's true believers, if such really exist in the strict sense, might have trouble exculpating her from charges of, consecutively, race-baiting and Jew-baiting.

And there are quarters of the 9th District, as elsewhere in the universe of Democratic voters, where there is no conceivable disgrace like that of being designated "Worst Person in the World" by MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann,, who scoldingly bestowed the dubious award on Tinker Wednesday night.

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