William Cohen recently joked, "Those aptitude tests said back in high school that I should be a farmer, so here I am." As the new secretary of Defense, though, Cohen is more likely to pound plowshares into swords than the other way around.
The author, poet and former senator from Maine is the first Republican named to a senior Democratic post since Robert McNamara in the Kennedy Administration.
Cohen is the son of Irish and Russian immigrants and grew up in Bangor, Maine. He graduated from Bowdoin College and Boston University Law School. Though Cohen pondered a teaching career, he instead chose to work as a lawyer and become involved in local politics in Maine.
After serving as the mayor of Bangor, Cohen moved on to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1973 and gained attention when, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, he was the first Republican to break ranks and oppose Richard Nixon on the question of the edited tape transcripts. He subsequently led a group of the moderate panel members in voting for Nixon's impeachment.
Cohen won election to the Senate in 1978 and began his focus on defense early on. Serving on the Senate Armed Services and Governmental Affairs Committees, Cohen played a strong roles in drafting the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, passing the Intelligence Oversight Reform Act and creating the U.S. Central Command.
He later served on the special committee that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal and, among Republicans, was one of the most critical of the Reagan Administration.
Throughout his career, Cohen moonlighted as an author and wrote three novels (including "The Double Man" with former Colorado Democratic Sen. Gary Hart), three works of non-fiction and two books of poetry. He married Black Entertainment Television host Janet Langhart in 1996 and retired from the Senate this year.
Rather than fade away into the consulting world or a legal practice, Cohen accepted Clinton's offer to become secretary of Defense and the only Republican in the Cabinet. Cohen had previously criticized the Clinton Administration for its hesitation in pushing adequate defense procurement and said at his swearing-in, "We cannot become the world's policeman, but neither, Mr. President and my colleagues, can we ever afford to become the prisoner of world events."
Under Cohen's watch at Defense, expect the emphasis to shift away from humanitarian missions and toward military readiness. Any problems between Clinton and Cohen will most likely involve this issue. In the first term, the Clinton Administration often used the military for many non-traditional missions, including peacekeeping and humanitarian aid.
Soon after taking over his department, Cohen outlined his priorities as getting the best possible soldiers in the military and making sure "that we provide them with the best equipment, training, and that we seek to modernize our forces for the future."
But he's got a big job ahead of him. The Pentagon is always a beast to manage, but the military has especially suffered with such recent problems as sexual harassment, hazing, low morale, an unclear and unpopular policy toward gay soldiers, the mysterious Gulf War syndrome, a tight budget, a difficult mission in Bosnia and a rising need for new equipment.
Plus, former secretary William Perry was well-liked at Defense and was considered a strong manager. But Cohen brings strengths to the job, including good relations with his former colleagues in Congress, a reputation for independent thinking and the ability to bridge differences, all skills that he will need at Defense.
"My greatest concern," Cohen said soon after becoming secretary, "is that we be able to persuade the American people that having a viable, sustainable national security policy is important, even when there is no clearly identifiable enemy on the horizon."
(Updated April 18, 1997)
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