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Cohen, William S.


COHEN, WILLIAM S. (1940– ), U.S. congressman, senator, secretary of defense, author. One of three children of a Russian-Jewish immigrant father and an Irish-Protestant mother, Cohen was born in Bangor, Maine, in 1940. As a youngster he came to an understanding with his father, Reuben Cohen, who ran a small local bakery: he would play basketball at the local ymca one Saturday morning a month, and attend Sabbath services at the local synagogue the other three.

Cohen remembers that during these early years in Bangor, he had "the worst of two worlds." As a Jew, the local bigots reviled him; as the child of mixed marriage, he was not fully accepted by the close-knit Bangor Jewish community. Cohen was told, shortly before his 13th birthday, that he could not become bar mitzvah without first submitting to a hatafat dam berit (symbolic circumcision) and his mother's completing conversion. Neither event took place; Cohen never became bar mitzvah. The trauma of his religiously bifurcated childhood led the adult Bill Cohen to affiliate with the Unitarian Universalist Church.

In 1958, Cohen entered Bowdoin College, where he excelled both in his major, Latin, and on the basketball court, where he was named to both the All-State and the New England Hall of Fame teams. Following his graduation in 1962, he entered Boston University Law School to study for his LL.B., which he received cum laude in 1965. While a student at BU, he was a member of the law review and served on its editorial board. His first year out of law school, he was employed as assistant editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Trial Lawyers Association.

In 1971, he was elected mayor of Bangor.

In 1972, Cohen decided to run for the United States House of Representatives. Cohen came to national attention during his first term when, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, he "resisted political pressure by voting to recommend the impeachment of President Richard Nixon for complicity in the Watergate cover-up." Crossing party lines, Cohen cast what turned out to be the deciding vote on a Democratic motion that informed President Nixon of his failure to comply with the committee's subpoena for White House documents and tapes. Cohen's mostly Republican constituency saw his impeachment vote as a matter of conscience; he was reelected in 1976 and again 1978, this time with 77 percent of the popular vote.

In 1978, Cohen was elected to the first of three terms in the United States Senate. During his 18 years in the upper chamber, Cohen became an acknowledged expert on military affairs. From his seat on the Armed Services Committee, Cohen led the fight for a stronger, more efficiently financed American military. In 1980, Cohen ran into trouble with the American Jewish political establishments when he cast a "reluctant vote" in favor President Reagan's proposed sale of five Airborne Warning and Control System (awacs) surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia. Heretofore a committed Zionist, his last-minute vote in favor of awacs was seen as a betrayal of the Jewish community which, in this instance, chose to see him as being "one of the family." During his years in the Senate, Cohen became well known for both his political moderation and independence of thought. As chair of the Senate Committee on Aging, Cohen played a pivotal role in the health care reform debates of the 1990s. As a committed environmentalist, he became the only Republican endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters.

In December 1996, President Bill Clinton, seeking to fulfill his wish for a bipartisan cabinet, nominated Cohen to become the nation's 20th secretary of defense. Easily confirmed by his former colleagues in the Senate, Cohen served as defense secretary throughout the remainder of the Clinton years (1997–2000).

Throughout his more than 30 years in public life, Cohen published nearly a dozen books. Among these are two volumes of poems (Of Sons and Seasons and A Baker's Nickel), three novels (The Double Man, Murder in the Senate, and One-Eyed Kings) and several works concerning government policy.


K.F. Stone, The Congressional Minyan: The Jews of Capitol Hill (2000), 63–64.

[Kurt Stone (2nd ed.)]

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