William S. Cohen

William S. Cohen (born 1940) has been active in United States government since the mid-1970s, serving in both houses of Congress in subsequent terms. He was named Secretary of Defense in 1997.

Former Senator William S. Cohen of Maine, nominated for the position of 20th Secretary of Defense in January of 1997, has after 24 years in national governmental service a reputation as a "maverick," a person who places ideals and morality above party loyalties. "Cohen won the label in 1974, when, as a 33-year-old freshman Congressman, he was the first Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to oppose Richard Nixon on the question of providing 'edited' transcripts of Oval Office plotting in the Watergate cover-up," explained Nation contributor Doug Ireland, "and was one of seven Republicans who voted for Nixon's impeachment." President Clinton nominated Cohen for the position because of his reputation as a moderate-to-liberal Republican and because of his extensive record of service on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Cohen was born in Bangor, Maine, to an ethnically and religiously mixed set of parents. His father was a Russian-Jewish immigrant, while his mother was of Irish Protestant extraction. At his father's wish he was raised Jewish, attending Hebrew school and preparing for the Bar Mitzvah examination. When he was told that he would have to undergo a conversion ceremony, however, he decided not to follow through with the Bar Mitzvah. Instead, he followed his mother's example in refusing to convert to Judaism and became a Christian.

By the time Cohen entered Bowdoin College in 1958 he had developed a reputation as an athlete, excelling in basketball. He had been co-captain of Bangor High School's basketball team and had earned Maine All State honors during his senior year. He originally majored in Latin, with the idea of becoming a teacher following graduation. After receiving his bachelor's degree, however, Cohen entered Boston University's Law School in 1962 to study for his law degree. He passed the Maine state bar exams in 1965 and the same year entered the Bangor law firm of Paine, Cohen, Lynch, Weatherbee, & Kobritz, Inc., eventually becoming a partner. In 1972 he took advantage of Maine's Representative William Dodd Hathaway's decision to run for a Senate seat to launch his own campaign for national office. He was elected by the Second Congressional District to the House of Representatives that year.


Elected to House of Representatives

As a freshman representative, Cohen was assigned to a position on the House Judiciary Committee a position regarded by many of his colleagues as a political dead-end, because he could not use it to benefit his constituents directly. However, "Fate played its ultimate trick on me," Cohen related in his memoir Roll Call: One Year in the United States Senate, "and turned my assignment to the Judiciary Committee into a rendezvous with history." Only a few months later, Congress instructed the Judiciary Committee to investigate whether or not there were grounds to impeach President Richard M. Nixon. When a vote to inform the president that he had failed to answer the committee's subpoena for tapes and documents came before the committee in May of 1974, Cohen sided with the Democrats in favor of the motion instead of with his fellow Republicans. He later sided with the Democrats again to vote in favor of impeachment.


Sought Higher Office

Although Cohen's cross-party voting record on these important issues angered some of the Republican constituents who had elected him, the Representative was able to use his new reputation to seek higher office. "In 1978," Ireland reported, "he won the first of three Senate terms by knocking off moderate Democratic incumbent William Hathaway with a demogogically nationalist campaign in which Cohen 'mov[ed] briskly to his right,' as the Associated Press noted that year, attacking Hathaway and the Carter Administration on the Panama Canal treaties, strategic arms negotiations with the Soviet Union and neutron weapons." During his succeeding terms Cohen cemented his reputation as a conservative on defense issues, helping to create and sponsor the G.I. Bill of 1984 and the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. He also worked for the Council on Foreign Relations, including a stint as the chair of the Middle East Study Group in 1996. Cohen became a published author during his terms as Senator, completing a volume of memoirs, several collections of poetry, some nonfiction works, and a couple of novels, including one The Double Man co-written with then-fellow Senator Gary Hart.

In 1996 Cohen announced his retirement from the U.S. Senate. In part, Ireland suggested, this was because of "his recent marriage to longtime girlfriend Janet Langhart, a former Marshall Field runway model and TV weather announcer who went on to a lucrative career as a talk-show host and now works for Black Entertainment Television." On December 5, 1996, however, President Clinton announced Cohen's nomination as Secretary of Defense. On January 22, 1997, Cohen was confirmed by the Senate, and he was sworn into office on January 24th.


Assumed Post of Secretary of Defense

As Secretary of Defense, Cohen has faced many problems concerning the nature of military life and making military training fair for both male and female recruits. During his first year in office, he had to confront the issue of sexual harassment in the military. Following the conviction of an Army drill sergeant of using his position of authority to demand sexual favors from female recruits, Cohen appointed a panel to investigate the military's policy of mingling male and female recruits during training. In December of 1997, the panel recommended segregating the genders for at least the first twelve weeks of training. Cohen also faced criticism for his support of General Joseph Ralston as successor to Joint Chiefs of Staff chair John Shalikashvilli. Ralston confessed to having an adulterous affair with a civilian woman while he was separated from his wife.

At the same time, Cohen has led the military toward more aggressive prosecution of sex offenders in the armed services. "Three Army sergeants were given prison terms for raping female recruits," wrote Johnathan S. Landay in the Christian Science Monitor, "and their commander, Major General John Longhouser, resigned … after admitting to having an adulterous affair years ago." Landay added that both an Army general and a Navy admiral "were stripped of their commands during investigations for alleged adultery and sexual harassment respectively." At the same time, the Army's chief noncommissioned officer and the Air Force's first female B-52 pilot both left the armed services to avoid prosecution for sex-related offenses.

As Secretary of Defense, Cohen faces the challenge of preparing the United States' armed services for work in "a world where the only constant is change," noted Linda D. Kozaryn quoting Cohen in a report for the American Forces Press Service, "where threats to American interests can erupt anywhere at any time … where rogue states and freelance terrorists can spread fear and death with a truck full of fertilizer, a vial of volatile liquid or a homemade nuclear device. It is a world that demands American leadership and a strong, capable and ready American military force." Future plans, Kozaryn reported, "include continuing to reduce Russia's remaining 20,000 nuclear weapons, continuing the Partnership for Peace program, enlarging [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)] and stabilizing Bosnia."


Further Reading on William S. Cohen

Cohen, William S., Roll Call: One Year in the United States Senate, Simon & Schuster, 1981.

Cohen, William S., and Gary Hart, The Double Man, Morrow, 1985.

Cohen, William S., One-Eyed Kings: A Novel, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1991.

Cohen, William S., Easy Prey: The Fleecing of America's Senior Citizens And How to Stop It, Boomer Books/Marlowe, 1997.

Christian Science Monitor, June 6, 1997, p. 3.

Nation, January 6, 1997, pp. 17-20.

New York Times, April 12, 1978.

New York Times Book Review, March 1, 1981; May 5, 1985.

Time, November 20, 1978; May 6, 1985.

Washington Post, December 22, 1987.

"Biography of William S. Cohen," http://www.defenselink.mil/bios/secdefbio.html (December 16, 1997).

"Biography: William S. Cohen," American Forces Press Service, http://www.dtic.dla.mil/afps/news/9701238.html (November, 1997).

"Senator William S. Cohen (R-Me)," http://www.bates.edu/∼jwallace/reps/billcohen.html (November, 1997).