TOPICS > Politics

Cohen At Defense

January 22, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


SEN. STROM THURMOND, Chairman, Senate Armed Services Committee: As for the task before the committee today, I’m sure Sen. Cohen knows all the answers to the questions he will hear today.

KWAME HOLMAN: By the start of this morning’s confirmation hearing it already was clear William S. Cohen was on the fast track to becoming secretary of defense. The retired Maine senator basked in the warm glow of praise from former colleagues on the same Armed Services Committee Cohen served on through an 18-year Senate career. Cohen is so well connected three current senators, including Maine’s Olympia Snowe, who formally introduced him, at one time worked for Cohen.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE, (R) Maine: Introducing Bill Cohen to the Armed Services Committee is a little like introducing Cal Ripken to the Baltimore Orioles. I first met Bill back in 1972, when he first ran for the House of Representatives. And I was inspired by his commitment to public service. In fact, I joined his staff in 1973. In those days Bill, his early days in public service, he began to set a standard that certainly I think that everybody in politics in Maine tries to strive to at this point.

KWAME HOLMAN: William Cohen, the grandson of Russian immigrants, was born in Bangor, Maine, in 1940. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1962 and earned a law degree from Boston University three years later. After serving as mayor of Bangor in the early 1970’s, Cohen was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served three terms. He was elected to represent Maine in the Senate in 1978. The father of two sons from his first marriage, Cohen now is married to Janet Langhart, a journalist with Black Entertainment Television. Cohen is a prolific writer, having authored eight books that include poetry, non-fiction, and a murder mystery set in the U.S. Senate. In the Senate Cohen was known as a moderate with an independent streak. His confirmation makes history. He’s the first Republican to lead the Pentagon for a Democratic President, bot Cohen assured the Committee that presents no problem.

WILLIAM COHEN, Secretary of Defense Nominee: I spent as has been noted here today the last quarter of a century working with Congress, with people with whom I’ve agreed and those with whom I’ve disagreed, attempting to do so in a constructive fashion to produce some positive results. I believe my record is one of bridging differences, not papering over them but building consensus behind reasonable and responsible compromises. And I’d also note that uniformity of opinion within an administration is not an imperative or even an ideal to be sought. To the President’s credit, I believe he wants a team with strong-minded advisers, who together will be able to provide him with the best possible guidance. And if I’m confirmed, I’m certain that on occasion there will be differences of views amongst us, as there have been in all administrations which views should be settled behind closed doors. And I have no doubt that we’ll be able to work together with a degree of comity and cooperation that will rival or exceed that of any administration I’ve observed over the past quarter of a century. I pledge to you and to the men and women in uniform to do my very best to merit this most solemn trust; whereas, the President has said, well, we should not fear to use force wisely. The courage, the loyalty, and the willingness of our men and women in uniform to put their lives at risk is a national treasure that should not be taken for granted.

KWAME HOLMAN: Cohen mostly faced good wishes from his former colleagues but also was asked about past defense policy differences with the Clinton administration.

SEN. STROM THURMOND: You have indicated statements you have made in this committee and on the floor of the Senate as to concerns the administration’s proposed funding for defense inadequate, especially for procurement. How will you rationalize your previously stated convictions on this matter with the expectation of all cabinet officials to oppose the President’s budget?

WILLIAM COHEN: There is a quadrennial defense review underway. It’s a very serious review of examining across-the-board our strategic policies of force structure and strength, infrastructure, readiness questions, all of those being examined to see exactly how much we will need to spend in the future. I would obviously indicate that I think that we have been deficient as far as spending for procurement in the so-called out years, the future defense years. We need to reverse the trend that we’ve had of simply postponing and pushing those procurement reforms out further into the year 2002 or 3, and to make a very dedicated effort to increase that procurement budget. That’s something I hope to do in the coming years.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican John Warner of Virginia asked about the U.S. troops stationed in Bosnia as part of a stabilization force known as SFOR.

SEN. JOHN WARNER, (R) Virginia: You and I took the floor many times on the issue of Bosnia. We stood toe to toe in resisting that because we did not recognize it as being vital. And my concern today is the SFOR forces do not have clarity of mission. Could you conclude my questions by giving us your understanding exactly what the SFOR mission is, and is there sufficient clarity as to the mission, and is there sufficient determination as to the exit strategy?

WILLIAM COHEN: It is to stabilize the region to allow the forces of peace which are currently in existence with their shallow roots, to allow those roots to sink deeper so there might be a reconciliation at some point in that region. The definition of an exit strategy is elusive, however. One cannot point to a clearly defined exit strategy, which is one of the regions why I believe the President and Secretary Perry had put the parameters of 18 months for when we will depart. I think most of the members here would agree that setting time lines or deadlines is really not advisable in most cases, but here, setting a time line is important because it’s telling our European friends that we’re not going to make an unlimited commitment to that region, we are not there on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. That really is the end result at that point. We expect them to make the kind of changes necessary to put the kind of resources into the region to help reconstruct it because we are not going to make a commitment beyond that time.

KWAME HOLMAN: Freshman Democratic Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, a former head of the Veterans Administration, wanted an update on the administration’s latest effort to aid victims of Gulf War illnesses.

WILLIAM COHEN: The President feels that our first obligation is to care for those who have served. We are going to take care of the veterans. For those who are ill, they’re going to be cared for. For those who are disabled, they’re going to be compensated, and we will get to the bottom of the facts surrounding this entire issue. There are, again, mechanisms of trying to identify which units were where, what the exposure was to get as much information as possible, to put that on the Internet, to invite people to comment, to cite examples that we may have missed, but it’s a massive undertaking. The funds have been at least tenfold in order to get this information and put it in place, so I agree with you about our solemn responsibility. And I believe that a substantial undertaking is now moving forward.

SPOKESMAN: Thanks, Bill.

WILLIAM COHEN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

SEN. STROM THURMOND: Next, Jim Thornton.

SPOKESMAN: Mr. Chairman, thank you very much. Senator Cohen, I received the news of your nomination with tremendous enthusiasm.

KWAME HOLMAN: The hearing went so smoothly the whole Senate vote on Cohen’s confirmation was expedited. He was voted in as secretary of defense ninety-nine to zero just two hours after the hearing ended.

JIM LEHRER: Still to come on the NewsHour tonight the violence in Algeria and a David Gergen dialogue.