Langhart, Janet 1941–
Janet Langhart 1941–
Media consultant, journalist
As wife of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Janet Langhart is one of the most prominent spouses in Washington. The former beauty pageant winner, Boston television personality, media consultant—and longtime Democrat—wed a Republican senator in 1996, and their union has been celebrated more as a triumph over multicultural issues in America than political ones. Though there are other high-profile interracial couples in Washington power circles, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, Langhart and her husband William S. Cohen—appointed to his cabinet post in the Clinton Administration in late 1996—are the country’s highest-ranking such pair on the official protocol lists. Washington Post writer Kevin Merida called them “the best advertisement for the kind of dialogue and interpersonal racial progress President Clinton is now pushing, the kind of progress that can’t be legislated.”
Langhart was born Janet Floyd in 1941 and grew up in public housing in racially segregated Indianapolis. She was raised by her mother, who worked as a hospital ward secretary. After spending two years at Indianapolis’s Butler University, Langhart found success as a model in the 1960s, winning several beauty pageants, including “Miss Sepia” of 1966 and “Miss International Auto Show” two years later. It was a different era, and one that ignited in her a sense of injustice over racial attitudes in America. She recalled that on one occasion, she arrived at an audition for an appliance commercial and caused somewhat of a stir; an African American woman pitching products in a nationwide ad campaign was still a rarity at the time.
Langhart married her first husband, Tony Langhart in 1968, just as her career was taking off. She was working at a Chicago television station (she eventually became a weathercaster there), and the couple married just weeks after the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Both were ardent civil-rights supporters, and “it was a kind of sentimental reaction to that loss,” Langhart told the Washington Post’s Merida in a 1997 interview. They divorced later that year.
As a result of her ratings success in Chicago, Langhart was hired by a Boston television station in 1974 as the co-host of Good Day, a local news program. She arrived
At a Glance…
Born Janet Floyd, December 22, 1941, in Indianapolis, IN; daughter of a hospital ward secretary; married Tony Langhart, 1968 (marriage ended, 1968); married Robert Kistner, 1978 (a physician and researcher; marriage ended, 1989); married William Cohen (politician and U.S. cabinet secretary), February 14, 1996. Education: Attended Butler University. Politics: Democrat.
Career: Began as Ebony Fashion Fair model; affiliated with WISH-TV, Indianapolis, IN; WBBM-TV, Chicago, television weathercaster in Chicago, late 1960s; WCVB-TV (Channel 5), Boston, MA, co-host of “Good Day,” 1974-78; affiliated with NBC network, 1978 and the America Alive show; served as assistant press secretary in the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis; co-host of New England Today, c. 1993; co-anchored America’s Black Forum with Julian Bond on Black Entertainment Television (BET), c. 1996; founder, Langhart Communications, an image-consulting firm. Former board member, United Negro College Fund, U..National Arboretum.
Address: Home —Washington, D.C. Office —c/o United States Department of Defense, The Pentagon, Washington, D.C. 20301.
in the city while a vicious battle over school busing was raging, a crisis whose worst moments were captured in news footage of residents of one neighborhood throwing stones at yellow schoolbuses full of children. The racially charged atmosphere lingered in sections of Boston for years afterward. Langhart was overwhelmed. “I felt betrayed because I had a notion of Boston as the cradle of liberty,” she told Boston Globe writer John Powers. “Boston was our beacon of fairness and justice and in many ways, it is. I didn’t get those ideas from romance. So I would go on the air and say: ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you stoning black children? How do you reconcile this? Where is the cardinal?’” In response, a local civil rights leader invited Langhart to her home, and gently reminded the newscaster to direct her words not to groups of viewers, but rather “to the good people of Boston. They’ll know who they are,” Langhart recalled in the Boston Globe interview.
Langhart’s combination of frankness, affability, and glamour earned her a devoted following. On the streets of Boston, she was a celebrity, a favorite with both black and white viewers. Boston Globe reporter Jack Thomas offered praise years later, saying, “Langhart is known for surprises, and for style, passion and ambition.” In 1978, NBC hired her to co-host America Alive, and that same year she married another prominent Bostonian, gynecologist Dr. Robert Kistner. Several years her senior, the physician had been part of the team of research scientists responsible for the birth control pill. As his wife, Langhart never needed to work again; they lived a lavish lifestyle that included a condominium at the city’s posh Ritz Hotel. Yet Langhart was loathe to abandon her career for good. She returned to television in Boston for a time, but was released from her contract in a notorious 1987 incident when she refused to draw lottery numbers, declaring to the press that she had no ambition to become “Vanna Black.”
Langhart’s skills soon found a more appropriate outlet when she became assistant press secretary for the 1988 presidential campaign of Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. The Democratic Party nominee lost the election to George Bush, but her involvement in the high-stakes world of media and politics injected added ambition into Langhart’s career plans. By then, Kistner had retired, and was enjoying a more relaxed life in Palm Beach; their marriage failed when the pair realized they had far different goals. They split amicably in 1989, but Kistner tragically committed suicide a year later. In time, Langhart renewed an acquaintance with a politician she had once interviewed in the 1970s, a senator from Maine named William S. Cohen.
Cohen had been raised Jewish but rejected the religion at the age of 12 when he was told he could not have a bar mitzvah unless his Protestant mother converted. A moderate Republican who had served in Congress since 1972, Cohen was often at odds with more conservative elements in the party and was known as one of the few Republicans who still supported affirmative-action programs. He also wrote poetry and novels. When he and Langhart started dating, a well-connected New England family wrote him and asserted that dating an African American woman would ruin his political career. The family had donated large sums of money to his campaigns over the years, and Cohen decisively informed them that their funds and opinions were no longer welcome.
In the early 1990s, Langhart was hired by the cable network Black Entertainment Television (BET) and coanchored America’s Black Forum, a talk show, with civil-rights activist Julian Bond. She also founded Langhart Communications, a consulting company that helps corporate executives and government officials improve their on-camera demeanor. After a courtship of several years, Langhart and Cohen married on Valentine’s Day in 1996 in a formal room of the U.S. Capitol building. The ceremony was attended by several prominent political figures, including Republican Congressmen Alfonse D’Amato and Trent Lott, as well as journalists such as Andrea Mitchell and Dan Rather.
By this point in his career, Cohen had decided not to run for re-election in the 1996 campaigns. In his farewell speech, he told his colleagues in Congress that bipartisan politics—primarily, the bitter struggle between the Democratic White House and Republican-controlled Congress—was the main reason for his leaving office. He reminded them in his address that “we are all on the same side,” the Washington Post reported. In a surprise announcement a few months later, Cohen was named Defense Secretary after Clinton won a second Oval Office term. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his tenure in Congress, Cohen had often locked horns with Clinton’s first Defense Secretary, William Perry, but when Perry stepped down, he recommended Cohen to take his place.
Langhart suddenly became one-half of one of the most prominent interracial couples in the United States. In her new role as the wife of the man who oversees all of the country’s armed forces, she travels often with her husband to visit American troops stationed around the globe—including to some of the harsher, troubled regions of the world—and has tried to use her position to call attention to the plight of military families far from home. She is popular with troops and enjoys speaking with them one-on-one. Langhart’s marriage to Cohen also provides inspiration to the more than 1.4 million active-duty servicemen and women, many of whom are non-Caucasian. Furthermore, many military personnel marry someone of another background. “It’s a military of volunteers and G.I. Janes and whites and blacks and Latinos and Asians who look at [Cohen] and his spouse and see the America of the millennium,” wrote the Boston Globe’s Powers.
Langhart often queries soldiers and servicepeople about conditions on American bases overseas, conspiratorially telling them, “You can level with me,” as she explained in the Boston Globe interview with Powers. “Maybe I can’t do anything about it, but I can hear you, and I can take it back to my husband.” Langhart has also become sensitive to the plight of those who are not sheltered by the benefits of an American passport. In Sofia, Bulgaria, for a NATO summit with Cohen, the wives of American embassy officials told Langhart how abysmal the hospital conditions were in the city for its residents; she returned home, marshalled support from pharmaceutical companies for supplies and had them flown over.
Langhart and Cohen have remarked that as an interracial couple, they have never experienced overt discrimination, although some people feel the need to bring up African American subjects. But she remains nonplused by the attitudes of others. “Look at me,” she told the Globe’s Powers. “I grew up in the ghetto in a single-parent family. I went to a private college on a scholarship. And here I am on Pennsylvania Avenue with the Secretary of Defense. If that isn’t a reflection on how great this country is.”
Boston Globe, March 9, 1989, p. 77; September 16, 1997, p. E1.
Jet, October 10, 1988, p. 33; February 12, 1996, p. 32; March 4, 1996, p. 16.
Washington Post, December 6, 1996, p. A26; December 14, 1997, p. F1.
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