An astute politician takes command at the Pentagon Cohen succeeds a respected manager


WASHINGTON -- On a 1995 flight to a military conference in Germany, Sen. William S. Cohen, a Republican, gave a pair of sock-slippers -- made in his native Maine to keep the feet of astronauts warm -- to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut.

Last week, on his way to unanimous Senate confirmation as defense secretary, Cohen lightheartedly reminded Lieberman, a member of the Armed Services Committee, of the gift.

The relaxed, familiar exchange during Cohen's confirmation hearing was part of the easy camaraderie between the new defense chief and members of the panel on which he served throughout his 18 years in the Senate.

It also sounded a changing of the guard at the Pentagon: the politician replacing the manager.

If his predecessor, William J. Perry, brought the efficiency of the businessman and the precision of the mathematician to the job of civilian chief of the Department of Defense, Cohen brings to it the shrewd calculation of the politician and the persuasive powers of the writer (he has published eight books, including three novels and two volumes of poetry).

"Bill Perry and his key lieutenants understood the intricacies of the Pentagon's bureaucracy better than just about anyone," said Loren B. Thompson, defense analyst with the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a moderate-conservative Virginia think tank. "And that led them to make the building work for them.

"On the other hand they generally didn't understand the intricacies of Congress very well, and that defect was the biggest single obstacle that they confronted to achieving their goals. Cohen should remedy the latter problem, but he really needs to select highly competent managers to complement his political skills."

Respected predecessor

When Perry vacated his second-floor Pentagon office, he was widely credited with having been one of the better defense secretaries of recent years.

"I don't envy you the position you're going into, having to follow Bill Perry," Sen. John Glenn, the Ohio Democrat and former astronaut, told Cohen last week.

But some observers believe Cohen, with his political astuteness and connections and acquired expertise in defense and intelligence issues, is well positioned to equal if not exceed Perry's stature.

"It's a very interesting thing about this town," said Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. "Several people can say the same thing and act the same way, but a lot depends on what people think about you and how they feel about you.

"Perry was liked. Even though he didn't have this political thing of being ambiguous and getting people to hear what they want to hear, it didn't hurt him. Cohen is a political person who is able to handle it -- and he is liked as well.

"Somehow or another, maybe because of his intellect, his poetry and all that kind of stuff, he has been able to make some very

interesting friends that you might not think would be his friends. That will stand him in good stead."

Example: Cohen was formally introduced to the Senate armed services panel last week by Sen. John McCain, a friend since the late 1970s who is an influential Republican military policy-maker on Capitol Hill -- a crucial ally for any defense secretary.

Unlikely pals

They are unlikely buddies. McCain is the son and grandson of admirals and a former prisoner-of-war in Vietnam.

Cohen, son of Irish and Russian immigrants, never served in military uniform and pondered a teaching career before he switched to law and politics.

They met when Cohen was elected to the Senate in 1979 and McCain was working in the Navy's liaison office on Capitol Hill.

The two quickly became firm friends, with Cohen acting as best man at McCain's wedding in 1980, then encouraging McCain's first Arizona congressional campaign in 1982.

"I believe you will see him more in a mood to restructure and change existing policy than perhaps his predecessor," said McCain in a phone interview Friday. "I think that Perry was a very thoughtful, patient individual. I think Bill Cohen is very results-oriented and frankly of a more aggressive nature.

"Cohen will be more national security policy oriented and less hardware oriented. I think Cohen, as a politician, will make better use of the media. Certainly Perry was admired and respected, but he didn't have a lot of flair."

As the sole Republican in a Democratic Cabinet, Cohen is bound to attract media attention.

But as the embodiment of Clinton's freshly avowed bipartisanship, he faces an obvious problem: his own criticism, as a senator, of many administration policies, ranging from the Bosnia mission to the administration's failure to consult Congress more readily, and its decision to defer spending for new weapons to pay for enhanced battlefield readiness.

Challenged during his confirmation hearing about disagreements with the administration, he said that U.S. troops would be out of Bosnia within 18 months, that he favored full and prompt consultation with Congress, that it might be necessary to cut troop levels to find money for new weapons.

But he also insisted that he would be able to work with the Clinton White House.

"I believe my record is one of bridging differences -- not papering them over, but building consensus behind reasonable and responsible compromises," he said.

"Uniformity of opinion within an administration is not an imperative nor even an ideal to be sought. To the president's credit, I believe he wants a team of strong-minded advisers who together will be able to provide him with the best possible guidance."

'Very flexible'

A more skeptical view came from a seasoned Pentagon watcher who asked not to be named: "My gut feeling about Bill Cohen is that Clinton picked him not only because he was ideologically congenial but he was emotionally congenial.

"Like Clinton, he has many strengths and weaknesses, and one of those weaknesses -- or strengths -- is he is very flexible. He will trim his sails to suit the administration, to be part of the team. If he doesn't, he won't be part of the team for long."

Policy shifts are a normal part of the Washington pattern. Endorsing the prediction that Cohen will close the gap with the administration, analyst Thompson said:

Where you stand

"When you are in political life, where you stand on an issue is often a reflection of where you sit. If you move across the [Potomac] river [to the Pentagon], if you move out of Congress, you no longer need to take positions that once were incumbent upon you."

Cohen's political connections to the Senate are so deep-rooted that, at one point in his testimony, he appeared to forget that his role was changing.

Talking about the congressional power of the purse, he told the senators: "The reason is that we have excuse me you have [the power]."

As the panelists laughed, he confessed somewhat sheepishly: "I lost myself for a moment."

Such confusion is unlikely to last long. In coming weeks he will have to present the administration's defense budget, always a controversial document on Capitol Hill and previously one of his own favorite targets.

William S. Cohen

Born: Aug. 28, 1940, Bangor, Maine.

Educated: B.A., Bowdoin College; LL.B., Boston University Law School.

Political career: Practicing attorney 1966-1972; teacher 1968-1972; Bangor city councilman 1969-1972; Bangor mayor 1971-1972; U.S. House of Representatives, 1972-1978; U.S. Senate, 1979-1997; author of three nonfiction books, three novels, two books of poetry.

Family: Married to Janet Langhart. Two sons.

Pub Date: 1/26/97

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