An 'Outsider' Set to Take Over Pentagon
By Dana Priest
Long before Billy Cohen of Bangor, Maine, realized that being a self-proclaimed "outsider" would score well with voters, he was one.
Son of an Irish Protestant and a Jew of Russian heritage, the lifelong Republican and longtime senator who is President Clinton's nominee for defense secretary, felt alone.
"To most Gentiles I was a Jew. To Jews I was always a Gentile. On either side I was the outsider, the outcast," Cohen, whose confirmation hearing is today, told Yankee magazine.
He began studying Hebrew at age 6 but at age 12, shortly before his planned bar mitzvah, the rabbi told him that because his mother was not Jewish he would also have to go through a conversion ceremony, to be submerged in water and then "there would be an extraction of blood from a very private place."
He was furious. He walked down to the edge of the churning river. "I wore a mezuzah [a Jewish amulet] around my neck, and I snapped it off and I threw it as far as I could into that river. I said to myself, 'Now I don't have to be a part of that ever again. I'm through pretending.' "
"And that was very liberating," Cohen said in the 1990 Yankee interview, which was transcribed verbatim. "That was my turning point. Now I knew I was in this alone, and I didn't have to be a part of anything that I didn't want to be. . . . Even had I been bar mitzvahed, I wouldn't have been truly a part of the community. When I was finally able to say, and to know, that I was alone, it was really the beginning for me."
As a boy in Bangor, and as a senator in the nation's capital, Cohen's most enduring trait has been his independent streak.
A reserved northeasterner in demeanor, his closest colleagues in the Senate at one point were companionable westerners John McCain (R-Ariz), John G. Tower (R-Tex.) and Gary Hart (D-Colo.). Described by friends as somewhat shy or stand-offish, last year he married Janet Langhart, a journalist for Black Entertainment Television who dazzles Washington social circles with her engaging charm. Langhart describes him as "very private," yet he is also a prolific writer eight books, including two of poetry whose works are sentimental and self-revealing. From "Behind My Eyes":
"I sit here on the quiet
In his political life, Cohen's independence and intellect are the central parts of his public image. Just a year after he had left his job as Bangor's youngest mayor he voted against then-President Richard M. Nixon as a member of the House Judiciary Committee investigating Watergate. He became a leading critic of the Reagan administration's Iran-contra scandal and recently, as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he said the CIA had lied to the committee to cover up its involvement in human rights abuses in Guatemala.
"Bill Cohen's independence is as rigid as his backbone," said Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.). He sat with Cohen on the Armed Services Committee, which holds Cohen's confirmation hearing.
The independence is "predetermined," Langhart said. "It's not contrived."
Liberal on social issues and moderate to conservative on defense and foreign policy matters, Cohen's individualism could have been his undoing. To the contrary, last year Cohen was ranked the most popular senator with his constituents, according to a recent national poll.
While he has never been part of the Republican leadership or even held a committee chairmanship, he has earned the respect of conservative colleagues for his civilized, intellectual approach to issues and for the fact that he will, on select occasions, vote the party line.
When then-Senate Republican Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (Kan.) wanted to cool down the partisan rhetoric on Whitewater, he asked Cohen to intercede with colleagues and to appear in public forums to counterbalance the boisterous Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), who is leading the Senate investigation. When Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) became majority whip, he chose Cohen as one of his deputies, even though Cohen did not vote for him.
As one of a handful of moderate Senate Republicans, he worked hard to craft bipartisan legislation on the independent counsel, health care and tightening regulations on lobbying. When he decided to retire last year from his secure Senate seat, he took his colleagues to task for forsaking moderation and bipartisanism.
"It is not in vogue today to talk about being a moderate," he said in his goodbye speech on the Senate floor. "We are frequently depicted as being mushy or weak-principled or having no principle, looking for compromise another word which has somehow taken on a negative tone."
He then recalled how an angry constituent had called his office after Cohen voted to support the crime bill. Asked why he was mad, the caller said of Cohen: "He's too damn reasonable," Cohen recounted. "Perhaps that will be the epitaph on my gravestone."
Although other presidents have crossed party lines to fill the top defense post, Cohen if confirmed as expected would be the first Republican politician to serve a Democratic president in the position. Cohen declined to be interviewed for this article. He told colleagues the White House put no restrictions on how many personnel positions he could fill with his choices at the Pentagon.
Like Clinton, Cohen has never served in the military. He received deferments first for marriage and then for having children.
So far, he has impressed skeptics who fear he is meant to be the administration's figurehead Republican, a mere symbol of bipartisanship. Unlike current Defense Secretary William J. Perry, Cohen does not have a heavyweight staff of defense experts to bring with him. But he has plunged into the assignment head on, and has told colleagues he has interviewed every former secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Although he served for 18 years on the Senate committee that will question him today, Cohen has been having day-long briefings on defense subjects and undergoing mock confirmation hearings, known as "murder boards."
He also appointed a highly regarded three-star Marine general, James L. Jones, whom Cohen had met when Jones was the Marine Corps' liaison to Capitol Hill, to be his military assistant. The position usually goes to a one- or two-star general. Jones's rank and evenhandedness are likely to assure Cohen gets the kind of accurate and timely information he needs to make decisions, colleagues said.
Yet to be seen, colleagues said, is how Cohen, who frequently criticized the Clinton administration on defense matters, can turn around and promote White House positions. As a senator, Cohen accused Clinton's foreign policy team of "indulging in contrapuntal soliloquies" over Bosnia and said the goals of the U.S.-led NATO mission there were like "a shimmering mirage out in the desert. . . . They keep sort of shifting like sand under us."
He called Clinton's pledge to bring troops home in one year "unrealistic," which it turned out to be. He berated the White House time and again for not building support for the Bosnia operation in Congress, and he warned Perry when he appeared before the committee for the last time, not to "deceive" members with more unrealistic deadlines.
Cohen also is a strong proponent of a national missile defense system, and believes the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty should be open to renegotiation a position opposed by the White House. He voted to limit the president's ability to deploy troops as peacekeepers. And while he supports expansion of NATO, he is cautious about its speed, cost and effect on Russian-U.S. relations. Cohen once proposed an "arms build-down" with the then-Soviet Union in which either country could add one new long-range nuclear missile or bomber for each two older ones it destroyed. In the face of much Pentagon opposition, he pushed through a separate bureaucracy for clandestine special operations.
Cohen has said previously he learned his work habits from his father, Ruben, who worked 16 hours, six days a week in the bakery that his Russian immigrant father handed down to him. He needs little sleep, he has said, and is meticulously organized; every book in his Senate office was indexed and numbered using the Library of Congress system.
Even as a child he worked hard, at basketball, at helping his father bake, at having fun, recalled his close teenage friend, Barry Shuman, now a state homicide detective in Maine. Basketball on Fridays, followed by a record hop Friday night. "If he had a date and I didn't, the three of us would go together," he laughed.
"Cohen can talk to [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin and he can talk to Barry Shuman," Shuman insists. "And if the president wants an answer, he's going to get it from Billy."
Staff researchers Bobbye Pratt and Hemming Nelson contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company