U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) backed off likening Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, to Jesus, saying the comparison was a mistake.
Cohen, who is Jewish, told the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday that Jesus, like Obama, had been a “community organizer” and that Pontius Pilate was a governor – leaving unsaid but understood the parallel to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential pick who had mocked Obama’s community organizer past in her speech last week to the Republican Party convention.
Chris Matthews carpeted Cohen on “Hardball” on Thursday in a short segment that seemed to have been arranged solely so Matthews could, well, carpet Cohen.
Here’s the transcript of the exchange, courtesy of the Federal News Service:
MR. MATTHEWS: Congressman Cohen, was Jesus a community organizer? I thought he was a carpenter.
REP. COHEN: Well, he was several things, but he was an agent for change and he was outside the system. I certainly didn’t mean to compare Barack Obama to Jesus as a –
MR. MATTHEWS: No, Al Sharpton is a community organizer. Jesus was a carpenter.
REP. COHEN: Well –
MR. MATTHEWS: I just think it’s – well, how do you make – why do you come up with comparisons like that? I thought the rule was stay away from Jesus; stay away from Hitler. These comparisons never work. I’m not giving you a hard time, but metaphors in that category are generally very dangerous.
REP. COHEN: They are dangerous, and I shouldn’t have done it. The first minute of my speech was accurate, and it was the disingenuousness of the Republicans condemning community activists, who brought about much of the change in America. I’d seen a bumper sticker on my e-mail that morning from an activist friend in Memphis. Those things are more for activists and less for congressmen, and I’ve learned from this particular speech.
Matthews then graciously (to Cohen, anyway) segued into a softball about suspicions among Democrats that deriding “community organizers” – former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani was even harsher than Palin in his convention speech – was racially charged. That let Cohen get in some campaigning – a sweet chaser after the bitter admission that he had gone too far with the Jesus analogy (and that it had been inspired by a bumper sticker!)
MR. MATTHEWS: Congressman, do you think the phrase “community organizer” is meant to suggest a kind of inner-city, big-city, ethnic, black, if you will, background and somewhat different or remote from the experiences of voters they’re trying to reach? In other words, are they setting up a caricature here through innuendo? Remember welfare mother? Remember how Reagan would talk about the young buck with his – I remember how Reagan used to do it – the young buck with his food stamps buying a bottle of gin. That was a fairly innuendo there. Is that – is this another one of these welfare mothers, community organizers, code phrases?
REP. COHEN: I believe it is. I saw (New York) Governor (David) Paterson reference that. And I felt it when I saw Governor (sic) Giuliani make the comment, as well as Governor Palin. Community activists, community organizers, do a lot of good in helping feed people, helping to take care of health needs, Habitat for Humanity efforts. And if you look at Dr. King and Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth, they’ve done so much good. That’s where change comes from. But I think it is a way to categorize somebody as a liberal, a leftist, an inner-city person. And that’s wrong. You know, Cesar Chavez helped farmers in California, and there have been efforts to help the people in the rural South as well.
Even sweeter, Matthews sent props to Cohen’s hometown before sending him on his way:
MR. MATTHEWS: Well, there’s nothing wrong with Memphis, is there? Congressman, thank you very much –
REP. COHEN: Memphis is great.
MR. MATTHEWS: Thank you for coming on and taking – explaining the whole thing.
The question remains, though – is this the first time a bumper sticker was read into the Congressional Record?