Do Tell: Rep. Steve Cohen on Acting, Warren Zevon and Impeaching the Attorney General
Meet freshman Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a fun-loving hipster in an aging man's body, a liberal Jew from a mostly black district (which is why he's at risk of being a one-termer), a lover of music and a Hollywood extra.
A baseball fan, Cohen, 58, talks about coming "to the majors," sitting on the House Judiciary Committee and getting the mouth-watering thrill of power from making the attorney general of the United States squirm. Cohen drops the "I" word and even suggests that, beyond impeachment, some of the harsher forms of interrogation under the Bush administration's extraordinary rendition program might be acceptable forms of punishment for Alberto Gonzales.
Less empowering is his office dog, a mixed breed pup who exacts her own form of torture on the congressman by leaving little piles on his office carpet. (He named the dog Jackie O in honor of the late former first lady and wife of his political hero, John F. Kennedy. A photo of JFK on the back of a convertible in Memphis, which Cohen took himself as a small boy, hangs on the congressman's wall.)
Cohen also discusses his close friendship with the late rock 'n roll icon Warren Zevon, how he wound up playing an obscure role in the 1993 film "The Firm," and how in the waning, contentious hours before Congress adjourned for its August recess he accidentally helped form a "Jewish section" in the House chamber, which Cohen - as he's prone to do with large spaces - imagines as a baseball stadium.
Sleuth: You have the distinction of being the first Jewish congressman from Tennessee, right?
Cohen: Yes, I am the first Jewish congressman from Tennessee. There are stories about Davy Crockett, but they're not verified. In the autopsy they thought maybe he was Jewish. Could have been an Indian thing.
Sleuth: But you're the real deal?
Cohen: I'm the real deal.
Sleuth: What's been your oddest moment so far in Congress?
Cohen: I think the other day when the [voting] machine broke down was pretty odd...and the Republicans were behaving rather inappropriate and Romper Roomish. And it reminded me of my buddy [Warren] Zevon's song, 'Disorder in the House.' And I was kind of thinking about it, you know: 'Disorder in the House. I was in the House when the House burned down. Home of the brave, land of the free, where the less you know the better off you'll be."
Sleuth: Tell me about your relationship with Warren Zevon.
Cohen: Warren and I became friends in 1993. He was in town for a concert, I went back and met him. We just hit it off. We became, over a little bit of time, the best of friends. There was Carl Hiaasen and other people. And I think several of us he told we were like the only brother he ever had. 'You're like my brother.' I discovered at the memorial service he also said that to Jorge Calderon and probably other people.
Sleuth: Are you a musician, was that part of your relationship?
Cohen: I play the iPod. But I love music. As a kid - I'm from Memphis - I did Elvis Presley in our spring festival. I did 'Don't Be Cruel.' I still cry at 'Love Me Tender.'
Sleuth: Did you hang out on Beale Street a lot?
Cohen: Beale Street's still pretty cool. Whenever B.B. [King]'s in town, I see BB. I saw Albert King whenever he came to town. In fact I represented Albert King. He was charged with gambling in a dice game. So I got this picture of me and Albert holding his booking number. I got him off the dice charge. So he died with a clean record as far as that charge went.
Sleuth: Tell me how you wound up in the Firm as an extra, and I think you were in another movie as well, weren't you?
Cohen: Well, John Grisham is from nearby. So...a lot of his movies...are set in Memphis....The head of the music commission lives down the street from me. She asked me if I wanted to come be an extra, I said sure, sure.
They had this massive buffet. And I'm not good at buffets, I absorb as much as I can, a heritage trait. They had these 16-ounce strips, gigantic potato, salad, asparagus and all that stuff. And I was stuffed. And at the next scene...they put this food in front of us, chicken salad. [I said], we can't eat all this. I was stuffed! I said, here's what we'll do. I will pass you the salt and pepper, you will salt and pepper your chicken salad and I'll salt and pepper mine. Then I will pass you the Tabasco sauce, nobody knows what we're eating. And then I will pass you the rolls and then we'll toast. Anything we can do but eat. So we did all this stuff and it turned out in the movie scene, we were on with me toasting my friend. And because of that, it was a pretty obvious spot of us in the background. And everybody who saw the movie recognized me. It was kind of a special scene for an extra.
Fred Thompson - he was like a regular actor, I was an extra. He was a United States senator, I was a state senator. Fred did big-time Supreme Court law, I did street law for Albert King, dice games, you know. So I always told Fred I was a junior Fred. Different parties, different philosophies, but whatever.
Sleuth: What about cultural clashes? You've got 435 people in there from all over the place, any memorable cultural clash that you've had so far with anybody?
Cohen: It wouldn't be a clash but the other night there was a very funny thing. The African-American members generally sit in the lower box seats so to speak, to the right of the rostrum. And the Hispanics generally sit in the upper deck, in kind of right center field, if you take it from home plate being the rostrum. And the Blue Dogs kind of get in center field. And the Jewish members have never sat together - intentionally. And the other night, I went and sat down, I tried to find a seat near a voting box. And Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) comes and sits next to me. And [John] Yarmuth (D-KY), who's my buddy, who's Jewish, sits next to him. And the next thing we know, Steve Kagen (D-Wisc.) came in...and then the next thing we look and there's Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) and there's Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and there's Steve Israel (D.N.Y.). And Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.). Debbie Wasserman Shultz (D-Fla.) came by and I told her she couldn't sit with us because we were being Orthodox, she had to stay in the back row.
It was like the Jewish section. It was the first time we'd had that. And we had some laughs...That was just kind of a Cohenincidence.
Sleuth: So maybe this will start a tradition, you all will sit together from now on?
Cohen: I think it will be when God decides that we should, and it'll probably mostly be on Friday nights.
Sleuth: What's your favorite Zevon song? Do you have one?
Cohen: 'Sick' or...He called it 'Sick' - I thought it should have been called 'Friends' but Warren was noir, I was like, you know, not so noir. 'Keep Me In Your Heart' is a very touching song. There are several of his girlfriends thought that song was for them. Just like 'you're my brother.'
Sleuth: Sitting on Judiciary with the whole Gonzo controversy, that's gotta be....
Cohen: It's sadly funny. Because I'm working on articles of impeachment right now. [Gonzales] didn't remember anything. So I got to ask him, 'How do you know the president and the vice president didn't do that?' And he just stumbled and stammered. And I thought, this is pretty cool to watch the attorney general of the United States stumble and stammer.
Sleuth: So you think Gonzales should be impeached?
Cohen: I think he should be impeached. He has disgraced his office, he has disgraced his country, he has spoiled the Constitution. Going against hundreds of years of American tradition of fair play and due process... merits at minimum impeachment, at worst flogging.
Sleuth: Who are you going to support for president in the '08 campaign?
Sleuth: And would you rather see Hillary or Obama?
Cohen: I would not take a position on that at the present time. I have great respect for both these individuals. I think they're both very talented. I think Barack - I'm just amazed when I see him, how talented he is. But Hillary Clinton...I've got great respect for her experience. And I like Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton's my friend. So I'm torn.
Sleuth: Tell me about your dog.
Cohen: We've got an office dog. Harry Truman - I've got his picture up in my bathroom - said if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog. We got an office dog that we adopted from a rescue agency. And the dog is named Jackie O. She's part poodle and part something else, I don't know, Schnauzer. Little dog. She basically lays around. She started to bark, but everybody loves her. And she kind of has the run of the place and likes to chew on people's shoes. And on the desk. And likes to poop in my office.
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