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The Outsider

William Cohen was a bold choice to lead the Department of Defense. He's independent, candid and a man of conscience. Oh, and he's a Republican.

March 17, 1997|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FORT JACKSON, S.C. — Already sweating at dawn in their bulky fatigues, the recruits lumbered into formation to hear a few words from their leader. But the man before them in polo shirt and crisp khakis wasn't about to offer the usual Army pep talk.

"America is a country of the most persistent idealism and the blandest cynicism," quoth Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, borrowing the words of a British commentator. "The race is on between our vitality and our decadence."

The recruits listened with respectful silence, but as Cohen and his aides melted away toward their motorcade, one stubble-topped recruit blurted: "Poetry in the morning? Something different around here."

William S. Cohen is decidedly something different. Indeed, the longtime lawmaker, novelist, poet, acolyte of conscience--and now overseer of the world's most powerful military--is the boldest bit of casting in President Clinton's second-term Cabinet.

A symbol of independence and soul-baring candor in his 24 years on Capitol Hill, the former Maine senator now fills a job where team play and reserve are held in highest value.

With scant managerial experience, though long familiar with defense issues, he is running a globe-girdling bureaucracy that has humbled some of the nation's most skilled managers.

And he comes to the job as a Republican--and a man with some sharp-edged differences with the administration he now serves.

The secretary's independent side seemed to make a brief appearance earlier this month on NBC's "Meet the Press," when he seemed to pointedly decline an opportunity to defend Clinton's justifications for fund-raising from the White House premises.

This unlikely pairing of man and job came about because of Clinton's hunch that the 56-year-old Cohen could be a "home run" Cabinet selection: a man with the skills and public appeal that could add sparkle to the administration, not to mention sweeten relations with the congressional GOP, and demonstrate again Clinton's fundamental nonpartisanship.

But it will work only if Cohen finds his way around the hazards that have undone so many of his predecessors, including Les Aspin, another brainy lawmaker and the man Clinton picked at the outset of his first term.

There is, of course, no easy time to run the Pentagon. But with a tight budget, an unclear mission, a rising need for new gear, and troublesome internal social problems--sex, hazing and mysterious illness--this may not be the best moment for on-the-job training. Still, Cohen is trying to master it and master it quickly.

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On his first domestic tour as secretary, Cohen recently visited Fort Jackson and Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, to meet recruits, look over installations and talk personnel issues. He chatted with Air Force brass about choosing specialties for recruits and the aptitude tests that are supposed to guide them.

"Those aptitude tests said back in high school that I should be a farmer," Cohen said. "So here I am."

The banter flows easily with the generals, whom he has known in his long years on the Senate Armed Services Committee. And with his good looks and tended appearance, he seems to be the model of the polished Washington politician.

But this public face can be a bit misleading. Cohen has another side: reserved and introspective. In his 1981 book about senatorial life, "Roll Call" (Simon & Schuster), Cohen lamented that he didn't quite have the easy garrulity of many in his job. He feared he was "a loner, too serious and too rigid and academic in my approach to politics and people."

Cohen has always been somewhat the outsider, by happenstance and by choice.

He grew up in a tough immigrant neighborhood of Bangor, Maine, the son of a baker of Russian-Jewish heritage (who wanted him to be an orthodontist) and a mother of Irish-Protestant descent. He learned to fight with his fists when he was small; some friends speculate that may account for his conviction that a strong defense is the best assurance of peace.

Cohen, who has one brother and one sister, excelled in sports and academics, and later drew attention in Washington as the photogenic young lawmaker who split from his party in votes to impeach President Nixon and to broaden the Iran-Contra investigation.

As a youth, Cohen decided that he wouldn't have a bar mitzvah because his mother's Protestant faith meant he would require a special conversion ceremony.

"I chose exclusion from the Jewish faith rather than accept the terms of confirmation," he wrote later of his tearful, angry decision, acknowledging that "snapping the bonds of conformity carried with it a price tag."

He went his own way on matters of less moment as well. Cohen proudly points out that as a basketball star at Bowdoin College in Maine, his weapon was a two-handed set shot--an "anachronism" even when he was playing, he says.

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