Politics

Where There's Smoke, There's Fog

Did he or didn't he? Cohen's alleged marijuana use raises a whole cloud of questions.

by Jackson Baker

 

This is the scene er, situation. A potential candidate for governor of Tennessee drops by a party given by the staffers of a well-known Middle Tennessee weekly newspaper. Some of them light up a joint and either offer it to the candidate or hand it over when he asks for it. He tokes up.

Months later, a reporter for the newspaper reveals in a cover story that the candidate has smoked marijuana semi-publicly with journalists and quotes him as saying, "It's a generational thing. I don't do it very often."

Somebody has to be smoking something! The indiscreet candidate, his kiss-and-tell buddies at the paper, somebody! Because the whole bizarre scene er, scenario takes us very close to the seam on a number of points where public figures interface with the media who cover them.

For the record, State Senator Steve Cohen now denies that he smoked pot with anybody in Nashville, although various personnel at the Nashville Scene continue to insist that he did, at a Scene after-hours gathering in May, during the legislative session.

"They're print paparazzi! Their report is erroneous," says Cohen of the article, "A Yuppie Among the Bubbas," written by reporter Liz Carrigan for the Scene's September 18th issue. Cohen, characterized by the article as "the legislature's most high-profile liberal," carries his denial to the point of saying, "I haven't smoked marijuana since sometime in the '70s, at a concert."

Cohen says that what he meant by saying, "I don't do it very often," was that he rarely partied with journalists in Nashville.

Carrigan stands by her report and defends the propriety of the revelation on the grounds that Cohen, whom she interviewed at length this month at the senator's Memphis residence, showed no reticence in discussing the issue and that his response was relevant to an evaluation of his potential future candidacy for governor.

Scene editor Bruce Dobie also emphasized the latter point and said that public figures like Cohen should be held to a "higher standard" than others -- than, say, the staffers at his own newspaper. He brushed aside conjectures about journalistic entrapment, noting -- no doubt correctly -- that there was no conscious effort by Scene staffers to entice Cohen into illicit conduct for purposes of causing him damage.

Nor was Dobie concerned about possible charges of hypocrisy on his, or his paper's, part. "Yes, I've broken the law on occasion. I've sped [in traffic], I've run red lights, I've turned in library books overdue." But, said Dobie, he wasn't a candidate for public office. Cohen was, and, moreover, the senator's behavior was part of a pattern, outlined by Carrigan, which Dobie said included "backstabbing" and "duplicity."

Cohen is alleged in the article to have asked City of Memphis lobbyist Robin Merritt for the right to speak at the recent funeral of her stepfather, General Sessions Judge Jim White, Cohen's predecessor in the state senate, then to have turned around and tried to blame Merritt's negligence for the passage of the suburban incorporation bill that city officials now see as a grave threat to Memphis' long-term interests. This despite Cohen's admitted closeness to Lt. Gov. John Wilder of Somerville -- who, as Carrigan points out, is "believed responsible for secretly shepherding the bill through the legislature."

Cohen, who has often been critical of Merritt in recent weeks, says that he was asked by Merritt to take part in White's funeral and that he did not "lead the charge" against the city lobbyist. The senator happily acknowledges his closeness to Wilder, whom he pledged to support again for lieutenant governor in the next legislative session.

Carrigan also takes note of Cohen's trademark contentiousness and periodic isolation as a legislator (quoting his Shelby County senate colleague Jim Kyle as saying, "I can't think of anyone I'd rather have speak against my bill.") Cohen responds that, on one of the issues mentioned by Carrigan, his so-far unsuccessful efforts to legalize a state lottery, "I've got a version of that passed no less than five times in the Senate."

Then there's the matter of Cohen's "stack of Playboy magazines," which Carrigan suggests are "out of place, given Cohen's reputation as a champion of `women's issues.'" The senator responds that one of his brothers was a subscriber to the soft-core skin mag way back when and that they've just kept coming. And the collection Carrigan saw at Cohen's house was confined, the self-confessed sports fanatic says solemnly, to issues devoted to previews of college or professional football seasons. In other words, suggests Cohen, he reads the magazine for the articles.

Carrigan meanwhile professes to be somewhat baffled by the fuss kicked up by her article, pointing out that much of it could be interpreted as favorable to the senator, who, as she notes, has "never been known as a slave to political correctness" and has "never seemed to care what people say about him, as long as they keep talking."

* As extraordinary as it might seem, in light of current revelations in Washington about the curious quid-pro-quos of Democratic Party fund-raising, the party's Congressional Campaign Committee offered a golf-for-dollars occasion last weekend in Memphis.

For $5,000, the lucky donor could not only be wined and dined at The Peabody along with several of the party's congressional stars -- most of them from the Mid-South or at least from Tennessee -- but count on a round of golf with them at Southwind.

Events of the invitation-only weekend were scaled, so that by merely attending a Sunday-night reception and dinner, say, and skipping golf on Monday, a donor could get by with less than the big ticket. (On the upscale side, there was no prior mention of how much a certified hole-in-one would have cost.)

The exclusivity of the attendee list was strictly maintained. But for all the care there was a mishap or two. One came when honoree Bob Clement arrived for the Sunday-night reception. He checked in at the credentials desk and was about to fix his laminated ID card on to his lapel when he thought to scrutinize it.

"What's this? Arkansas?!" exclaimed the Nashville congressman, not only a resident of and official from Tennessee but until lately, when he opted against a 1998 race, very much a potential candidate to be governor of the Volunteer State. An embarrassed aide to Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, apologized and set to an impromptu revision of the offending card.

Clement was upbeat about Knoxville businessman Doug Horne, who is an unknown quantity with the state's press and public but is gathering momentum as a gubernatorial prospect with Democratic Party figures -- especially with party chairman Houston Gordon of Covington.

"I worked with him on the TVA Board," said Clement. "In fact, we left on the same day. He'd do quite well, either as candidate or as governor."

Said another honoree, U.S. Rep. Marion Berry of Arkansas' 1st District: "We don't know whether it helps me or hurts me. But a poll of ours shows that 14 percent of the people who vote in the 1st District think I'm the same guy who's mayor of Washington, D.C."

That, of course, would be former Memphian Marion Barry -- who had to step down as D.C. mayor once to serve a prison term for drug use and whose city has virtually been put into congressional receivership during his current tenure.

(Besides having a different vowel in the last name, the two men boast other distinctions. Berry is white; Barry is African-American. Berry is farm-bred, Barry hails from inner-city Memphis.)

Other congressional stalwarts on hand for the fund-raising weekend were Reps. Bart Gordon, John Tanner, and Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee; Reps. Charles Stenholm of Texas, Karen Thurman of Florda, and Chris John of Louisiana; and former U.S. Rep. Blanche Lambert Lincoln of Horseshoe Lake, Arkansas.

("Hello, Senator!" is how Rep. Ford greeted his former colleague Lincoln, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate.)


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