Republican Cohen Equally at Home With Policy and Poesy
By Dana Priest and Helen Dewar
Maine Sen. William S. Cohen, a Republican who has never served in the military, is a career-long maverick with a reputation for fashioning compromise out of discord. He can recite the intricacies of NATO expansion with as much ease as he can and does recite T.S. Eliot.
But what probably says more about Cohen's reputation, after 24 years in an increasingly partisan Congress, is that despite having upbraided Defense Secretary William J. Perry time and again during Senate Armed Services Committee hearings, several sources said it was Perry who recommended that President Clinton name Cohen as his successor.
For an administration facing a more conservative, Republican-controlled Senate, Cohen represents the White House's olive branch although he is a moderate who was sometimes out of step with the conservatives who now dominate his party. If confirmed, he would be the first Republican nominated by a Democratic administration to run the Pentagon, and the first senator to serve as secretary of defense.
"What's really important is the credibility he has here," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has served on the Armed Services panel with Cohen. "Even when people disagreed with him on a national security issue, they respected the fact that he thought it through, that he had a good argument to make, and often he was able to persuade them."
Cohen yesterday called his selection "a bold and exciting move," and his Senate colleagues and other Pentagon observers saw the nomination as signaling a return to a more bipartisan approach to defense policy. "Don't the Republicans have to respect him?" asked Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), a moderate who has worked with Cohen on budget and health care matters. "What are they going to say, `Don't appoint a Republican'? Clinton has them in a box."
Although roundly praised by colleagues yesterday for his grasp of complex military and intelligence issues and his gentlemanly manner, Cohen has never run a business or organization, much less a megainstitution like the Pentagon. Colleagues assume he will choose a deputy with strong managerial skills and bring lieutenants into key posts to help him work the bureaucracy.
Cohen, who at 56 retains schoolboy looks, has been bucking convention almost since birth. He was born in Bangor, Maine, to an Irish Protestant mother and a Jewish agnostic father who worked as a baker. Divorced in 1987, he was married this year to television interviewer Janet Langhart, who co-hosts "America's Black Forum" on Black Entertainment Television.
He is the author of eight books: two volumes of poetry, three novels and three nonfiction works.
Cohen began his political career in 1969, as a Bangor city councilor. He campaigned for a House seat in 1972 by walking 600 miles within the congressional district, and won a Senate seat just six years later.
Almost immediately his independent streak put him in the limelight. In 1974, as a House Judiciary Committee member during the Watergate hearings, Cohen broke ranks with the Republican White House, first when he voted not to accept edited transcripts of secret Oval Office tape recordings, and later when he voted to bring impeachment charges against President Richard M. Nixon.
As a senator, Cohen was a frequent and eloquent critic of President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy adventures, particularly the administration's involvement in the Iran-contra scandal.
He is a longtime advocate of stronger ethics rules and fashioned, with Democratic Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), the independent counsel law reauthorizing the use of special prosecutors to investigate high-ranking officials.
More liberal on social issues than on defense matters, Cohen has helped bridge Republican and Democratic differences on such contentious issues as the antiballistic missile defense legislation. In the last session he worked with a bipartisan group of three other senators to find a compromise on a new antimissile defense program, a pet Republican project that Clinton has all but rejected. He also was a leading opponent of extending the B-2 "stealth" bomber program, which the Clinton administration successfully pushed through Congress.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a close ally for years, said she sees "no major areas of incompatibility" between Clinton and Cohen on defense strategy, even though Cohen has disagreed with the president on some specific and important points.
On peacekeeping activities, for instance, Snowe said Cohen sought a "more restrained and purposeful" role for the United States and criticized some aspects of the administration's Bosnia policy, but wound up voting to authorize deployment of troops in the Balkans.
Cohen is a strong supporter of NATO and NATO expansion and has taken a key role in trying to streamline Pentagon operations. His colleagues on the Armed Services Committee say Cohen will bring strong skills as a strategic thinker to an administration whose defense policies sometimes appear ad hoc.
"One of the great strengths that Bill brings is a broad geostrategic grasp of issues that is vital as we adjust to the post-Cold War environment," said McCain. "He's one of the brightest strategic thinkers we have."
McCain added that Cohen "was one who was not always in lock step with perhaps the more hawkish side of our party. But I would suggest he's probably been in step with a majority of the Senate."
On Bosnia, for example, he continually criticized the administration for lacking a long-term strategy and called the administration's original, preelection plan to withdraw U.S. troops within a year "unrealistic."
"There is a legitimate debate as to whether Bosnia is in our vital national security interests," Cohen told Perry in an October hearing.
Cohen observers note that he has not been nearly as purposeful as McCain in criticizing traditional Pentagon pork barrel spending and that they do not anticipate a major push from him in this area.
As chairman of the seapower subcommittee, Cohen has had a perfect perch from which to guard the shipbuilding interests of his home state. In 1995 he successfully added a third $1 billion Aegis destroyer, built largely by Bath Iron Works in Maine, to the administration's budget request, and $28 million to a program to build more grenade launchers manufactured by a Maine company.
"He is very assiduous in making sure that Maine projects would be taken care of," said John Issacs, president of the Council for a Livable World, a proponent of reduced arms spending.
But Cohen has not been shy in taking on the Pentagon's authority or structure. He helped push through Congress the reorganization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and legislation creating an office for special operations and low-intensity warfare within the executive branch.
Former senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.) said Cohen is not intimidated by people in military uniform. "You have to be able to question authority," said Hart, adding that Cohen would be "respectful but iconoclastic" toward the military.
During one particularly contentious Armed Services Committee hearing last October, members on both sides of the aisle criticized Perry for not being more forthright when the administration made the promise which no one expected to be kept that U.S. troops would leave Bosnia in one year.
Then Cohen, who had decided not to seek reelection because of the sour state of bipartisan relations, made his final statement at his final hearing about the "permanent state of guerrilla warfare" that exists between the White House and Congress. It went on for some time, and Cohen even laughed at himself for not wanting to end. The gist was this:
"We have erected a sort of Maginot Line mentality, and we have had a warfare that has existed for too many years . . . in which there has been a lack of either trust or a flow of candor on the part of the executive versus the congressional. And that can't be. . . . We are all on the same side."
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company