Cohen adept at bridging parties Next Pentagon chief has long history as a Republican apart

December 07, 1996|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Bill Cohen has been the man in the middle before, and it could happen again.

As the first Republican picked for the Clinton Cabinet, the Defense secretary-designate seems well-positioned to close the gap between the Democratic White House and a Republican-led Congress.

"He's one of Washington's premier bridge-builders," said Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy Magazine. During his years in Congress, Cohen was able to bring the two parties together, particularly when it came to sensitive questions involving nuclear weapons.

But the senator from Maine also found himself uncomfortably trapped between political extremes, to the point that he decided earlier this year to quit public life altogether.

After 18 years in the Senate and six in the House, he said last January, he wasn't happy being among the few survivors of a shrinking band of GOP moderates.

The last straw came during the bitter partisan warfare between President Clinton and the conservative Republican Congress. The budget fight over social spending vs. tax cuts made the tight-fisted politician feel, more than ever, like the odd man out. He didn't support either side.

"He's kind of what you might call an intellectual loner," said Ronald C. Kaufman, former White House political director for President George Bush. "He's not afraid to walk down a different path."

As a House freshman in 1974, he was the first Republican to turn against President Richard M. Nixon in the Watergate investigation, voting with Democrats to refuse to allow the GOP president to edit his White House tapes before turning them over Congress.

"I knew I had crossed a line that would define my career in Congress," Cohen would later tell an interviewer. And he was right.

He became known as a politician who would buck his party, not only on ethics matters but on social policy. He favors abortion rights and gun control, for example, which puts him at odds with most of his Republican colleagues in Congress.

Cohen, 56, has spent a lifetime a bit apart from the rest.

The offspring of an Irish-Protestant mother and a Jewish bagel baker -- he once described himself as "looking Irish with the most Jewish name in the world" -- Cohen said he never felt accepted by either culture.

For his second wife, Cohen married a black television personality, Janet Langhart, and the couple lives poised between two often separate racial worlds.

In college, Cohen was a Latin scholar who played basketball and the bongo drums. During his career, he has combined politics with poetry and fiction writing: a romantic by night who spent many of his legislative days piercing through the technical jargon of military weaponry.

"He's very much a Renaissance man," said Chris Potholm, a college fraternity brother who is now a government professor at their alma mater, Bowdoin College in Maine. "I think his kind of apartness gave him a sense of self-worth and integrity beyond whatever role he happened to be in at the moment."

Cohen's independence could serve the president well, Potholm said, as long as Clinton understands that Cohen will likely make enemies who will "knife him in the back."

A prime area for controversy could be pork-barrel spending in Congress for weapons and facilities the military believes are unnecessary, Potholm said. But Cohen "is going to be just as tough with the military as he is with the civilians. They better all be studying up on the Peloponnesian War," his friend and one-time campaign manager added.

His Senate colleagues predicted this week that Cohen would breeze through the confirmation process. He got a particularly strong endorsement from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who became his friend during their years of service together on the Armed Services Committee.

That doesn't necessarily guarantee, however, that Cohen's links Congress will remain strong. The late Les Aspin, who chaired the House Armed Services Committee before becoming Clinton's first Pentagon chief, saw his relations with Capitol Hill sour quickly when controversy developed.

"Bill Cohen will maintain enormous respect and affection from his colleagues on the Hill, but he can't bank on that," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican. "When someone leaves here, it doesn't take long before you're out of sight, out of mind."

Cohen's decision to take the Pentagon job came after he had already begun detaching himself from Washington political life. Last January, when he stunned his colleagues by announcing plans to retire, he said he wanted to have time to begin a new career while he was still young enough and strongly hinted that he wanted to make more money.

"I was somewhat surprised that he accepted the challenge," said Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican. "He is a man of modest financial means and now he is at the pinnacle perhaps of his earning power."

McCain observed, though, that running the Pentagon is "not exactly like joining the bread line at the Salvation Army."

"And once you get out," he added, there's no shortage of defense contractors willing to pay for that sort of experience.

William S. Cohen

AGE: 56.

EDUCATION: Bachelor of arts, Bowdoin College, 1962; law degree, Boston University, 1965.

EXPERIENCE: Three-term U.S. senator from Maine, first elected in 1978; served three terms in the House, 1973-1979; mayor of Bangor, 1971-1973. Bangor City Council, 1969-1973; poet and author of nine books.

FAMILY: Divorced from his first wife in 1987, married television personality Janet Langhart this year. Two children from first marriage.

Pub Date: 12/07/96

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