Rep. Cohen: ‘What’s body lotion for?'

Rep. Steve Cohen’s rented downtown Washington apartment, with its towering ceilings, crisp white walls and hardwood floors, is stunning.

The hallway outside? It’s in need of a paint job.

I await the Tennessee Democrat’s arrival and sit on the carpeted floor trying not to feel nauseous as I take in the mixture of neon greens, yellows, and oranges of the walls. Cohen, 57, walks off the elevator onto the 13th floor and I’m relieved; now I can find equilibrium — and maybe some ginger ale? — inside.

“It’s kind of like South Beach,” says Cohen, acknowledging the color scheme.

Enter the congressman’s apartment through its lime-green door and all sense of discontent disappears. It’s a plain and elegant space that serves as the congressman’s home during the D.C. workweek. 

The windows are floor to ceiling and offer a spectacular view of downtown Washington, including a glimpse of the Capitol. It could be spectacular if Thom Felicia (the interior decorator from Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”) got his hands on it.

Instead, we have Cohen. He has lived here four months, but does not appear to have a decorating gene.

“Furnishings are rather Spartan,” he agrees. “It’s got potential. The floors are beautiful, and I certainly expose them well.”
He blames the barren feel on the fact that he’s a freshman lawmaker and hasn’t had time to spend on such luxuries as decorating. “There is almost no time to do anything,” he says.

But there are peculiar things going here.

There are only two pieces of furniture in the living room. The congressman sits in a buttery leather armchair and this reporter takes her place on a matching ottoman (which presumably serves as a footstool at other times). Cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes serve as end tables, coffee tables and a TV stand.

“I watch Colbert occasionally because he has become my new best friend,” says Cohen, referring to Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” on which he recently appeared despite well-publicized warnings from Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). 

Best friend? Colbert asked Cohen whether he was a black woman.

Obviously not, the lawmaker replied.

It’s not obvious, Colbert retorted.

Cohen couldn’t be more different physically and politically from his predecessor, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D), who gave up his seat and ran, unsuccessfully, for the Senate. Cohen is liberal, whereas Ford is studiously conservative on some issues.

 Cohen’s race was a tough one; Ford’s brother ran against him as an Independent. “There were people who said this is a black district and I shouldn’t be running,” says Cohen. There were also the anti-Semitic slurs, on which Cohen comments, “I don’t want to repeat that stuff.”

Cohen acknowledges that he owes his seat to Ford’s higher ambition. “I don’t think anybody compares me to Harold Ford,” he says.

Until now.

Ford is a looker — handsome, slim, with striking green eyes and chiseled features. He hasn’t posed for GQ, but he could. The congressman who now represents Tennessee’s 9th district is of a different sort — a head like a melon, a deeply receding hairline, a forehead that domes back about a mile, and little twinkling glasses. He is a jumpy character, at times dancing to music in  the apartment.

But there is order around him. Four pairs of black and brown shoes — loafers, mostly — are lined up by his chair with a Gucci shoehorn. “This is where I wake up,” he says, reclining in his chair. “This is where I put on my shoes.”


After chatting in the living room for a while, we wander into Cohen’s bedroom and the congressman offers me the chance to try out his “sleep number” bed with its big, fluffy white comforter. (I decline the offer.) The bed offers a choice as to firmness. Cohen sets it to 35, which he describes as “plenty soft.”

A pair of fuzzy green, woolen socks is on top of a miniature TV that has rabbit ears. The socks are for cleaning, not wearing. Thankfully there is another shoehorn in the vicinity, just in case shoes should travel from the living room to the bedroom.
“What would it be called — kitsch?” he asks of the dated TV.

While many people gravitate toward the kitchen of a person’s apartment, in Cohen’s dwelling the place to be is the bathroom. It is a beautiful elongated rectangle, clean and spacious, connecting the bedroom with the foyer. There is a double sink, a spotless tub, and a separate stall shower.

Lined up on the counter are bottle after bottle of fancy Acqua di Parma lotions and potions and the sleep-inducing herb melatonin. There is Brut Faberge cologne and shaving cream. Cohen’s girlfriend, whom he won’t name, recently came for a visit, he says by way of explanation. She stayed at the Willard and left some lotions with him before returning to Tennessee.
“What’s body lotion for?” the congressman asks curiously, as though he had just disembarked from a spaceship.

Cohen has no time for baths, but uses the shower.

The mystery of the lotion hangs awkwardly in the air when Cohen himself surmises, “Sometimes I play with it, put it on and see what it does.”

Next stop: the kitchen. Cohen’s refrigerator is as Spartan as the rest of his apartment. There are a few bottles of tonic, wine, Pepsi, pulp-free orange juice, and half & half. But front and center on the third shelf is a copy of The Hill newspaper. “It’s food for thought,” Cohen says, buttering me up. I wonder if our competition is in the freezer where it belongs.
We check it out. Nope, only dark roast coffee, Edy’s frozen fruit bars and two frosted glass mugs.

Back in the living room — he’s in the chair again and I’m perched back on the ottoman — things begin to normalize (as much as they can) as Cohen tells the story of contracting polio when he was 5. 

“I remember being in the hospital and [having] hot-pack treatments,” he says. “It was close to a 10 on the scale of big deals.”
Cohen’s father, a pediatrician, was given the polio vaccine to dispense in 1954. Tragically, he gave the shots to Cohen’s older brother but not to him. Five months later, Cohen, the youngest of three boys, contracted polio.

“That affected [my father] greatly,” Cohen says, explaining that his bout with the disease still causes him to tire and sometimes gives him trouble standing.

As a fourth-generation Memphian, Cohen spent 24 years in the state Senate and served as the Shelby County commissioner. He’s a Vanderbilt graduate — both undergrad and law school.

He always planned to go into politics. “As a kid, John Kennedy was someone who always mesmerized me,” he says.
Gazing out his window with a faraway look, Cohen says the apartment wasn’t a hard choice. He briefly considered a furnished two-story townhouse but chose this place because of the view of the Capitol. “It’s so killer at night,” he says, noting also the pastel blues and reds of the morning sky.  

“Pretty good when you’re a freshman that you can see the Capitol all day and night.”