Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Deep Throat, Dan Cohen, and Damaged Goods

The near-universal praise given to Mark Felt must really stick in Dan Cohen's craw. Felt was just revealed to be "Deep Throat," the anonymous source of Watergate fame.

Ten years after Deep Throat spilled the beans, Dan Cohen was the anonymous source of damaging information about a powerful politician. Instead of a third-rate burglary, it was a shoplifting charge at a Minneapolis department store. The politician was Marlene Johnson, the first woman candidate for lieutenant governor of Minnesota.

During the 1982 Minnesota gubernatorial campaign, Dan was called into a meeting with prominent supporters of Wheelock Whitney, the republican candidate. He later mused that he should have suspected something was up, being a private in a room full of generals. Based on a vague statement by a talk radio host, the Whitney supporters had found the public arrest records and asked Dan to shop them around to local reporters.

With a carefully scripted demand of confidentiality, Cohen revealed the information to several reporters, in turn, in exchange for their agreement not to print his name. Some reporters chose to print the information; others did not. The two daily newspapers in the Twin Cities decided to go with the story, but break their promise to Cohen and print his name. Cohen was fired from his advertising job and Whitney lost the election, as expected.

When Dan Cohen managed to find some work writing brochures for the University of Minnesota Men's Athletic Department, liberal Star Tribune columnist Doug Grow complained loudly. Dan was fired again. How did Doug Grow find out? An anonymous source. This second firing inspired him to finally sue the newspapers for their breach of contract. After many twists and turns, it became a landmark U.S. Supreme Court victory for Cohen and his lawyer, Elliot Rothenberg.

After Wheelock Whitney had resumed his career as a wealthy businessman and Marlene Johnson had served two terms as lieutenant governor, Cohen and Rothenberg were the only ones involved in the case who were worse off after 1982. The court victory was sweet vindication for them.

As I posted earlier, Elliot Rothenberg has written a book about the case. Now Dan Cohen joins him with the release of Anonymous Source. Both books are excellent. When reading both of them, it is interesting how two Harvard-educated lawyers (a fact repeatedly mentioned by the defendants) sitting next to each other in court could see things so differently. The testimony of veteran sports columnist Sid Hartman is either comic relief or a tactical blunder, depending on which book you are reading. Each book fills in interesting details from the trial and numerous appeals.

One thing about Cohen's book is that he can't decide whether to be angry or contrite. The book concludes with an apology to Marlene Johnson. But there still is the lingering question of her conflicting stories about the shoplifting. Cohen and Rothenberg are not perfect, but they come off much better than the numerous bullies who populate the story. For my money, being a hothead who later regrets his actions is one thing. Being a cold-hearted bully who sets out to destroy a person is quite another. Cohen is the former, while Doug Grow and others are the latter.

Anonymous Source shows humility and humanity. Try finding that in a Doug Grow column.

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