Sen. Cohen, a Renaissance man and poet
Boston — POET, novelist, artist, linguist, athlete, and United States senator, William S. Cohen of Maine is a true ``Renaissance man.'' He has written two volumes of poetry, co-written a spy novel with fellow Sen. Gary Hart, had some of his artistic ``doodles'' published in the Washingtonian magazine, and continued his study of Latin, Hebrew, and Spanish. He also finds time to jog and play basketball, a game that was his professional ambition before his senior year at Bowdoin College in Maine.
As he tugs off his tie and loosens his silk shirt in a stately room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston, Senator Cohen explains that his poetry flows more from his roots in Maine than his experience in Washington.
``It's very hard to write in Washington,'' he says, ``because the business of Washington is not nature and it's not the elements, it's a definition of power and the contest of power.'' There is nonetheless a bridge between these aspects of his life -- the use of language to persuade, to evoke, to create images.
Cohen says the object of a poem is ``to try to compress an idea into a very few words and to make that idea almost phosphorous, to light up in one's mind or memory.'' The same is true of great speeches, he says. The most effective orators ``use words to create an image that is unmistakable. . . . If you look at Churchill or any of the great orators, there's a phraseology of words that can stimulate and move people.''
William Cohen first became visible on the national scene in 1972 when, as the little-known mayor of Bangor, Maine, he campaigned for a seat in the US House of Representatives by walking 600 miles, covering the district from New Hampshire to the Canadian border. Not only did this unusual campaign style garner him news media attention, it allowed him to meet many of his future constituents and gave him a deep appreciation of their way of life and concerns. The trek was more than a campaign gimmick and Coh en has returned often to hike among the citizens of Maine, whom he has represented as a US senator since 1978.
What Cohen feels was his most important speech came early in his Washington career. As a freshman Republican congressman, he wound up on the House Judiciary Committee, which investigated grounds for impeaching President Nixon.
When the committee subpoenaed the tapes from the Oval Office, President Nixon handed over edited transcripts. The transcripts were unacceptable for two reasons: They were incomplete, and all the subtleties of inflection and tone were lost on paper.
Committee chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D) of New Jersey drafted a letter informing the President that the transcripts were inadequate. When Republicans on the committee held a caucus in which they refused to support the letter, Cohen objected, saying that if they were concerned that the letter was partisan, he could draft one in its place. They refused and Cohen walked out.
The night before the vote, Cohen did not sleep. He would have 15 minutes on the House floor the next morning in which to justify breaking ranks with his Republican colleagues and breaking the tie to ensure passage of the letter.
Cohen's speech could not be poetry, but he was conscious of the need to create an image in the listeners' minds in order to persuade them. He compared the circumstantial evidence of presidential involvement in Watergate to snow: If you wake up and there's snow on the ground where there wasn't any the night before, you conclude that it snowed during the night, even if you didn't see it fall. Conspiracy is too subtle and ambiguous to leave smoking pistols, but the fallen snow must not be ignored. Cohen's image stuck. His colleagues continue to comment on it more than a decade later.
As a result of his deviation from the party line, however, Cohen found himself cold-shouldered. Antagonism was developing, and Cohen felt much of it was directed at him for failing to support President Nixon. The next day, during the course of a 22-mile hike, he sought relief from the sun and heat. He recalls being overwhelmed by the peace of the woods, the scent of the pines, the serenity of the trees. He wrote: I felt the green fill of life flow from the trees gently into me
Partisan politicking is Cohen's strongest criticism of Congress. His dissenting vote against Mr. Nixon is only one example of Cohen's nonpartisanship. He also cosponsored the nuclear build-down bill with Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia.
In an unofficial bipartisan effort, he co-wrote a spy novel, ``The Double Man,'' with Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado. Cohen explains the collaboration this way: At about 3 a.m. on a July morning in 1980 most of the senators on the Hill were stretched out on cots, as one or two of their colleagues were prolonging a filibuster. Cohen spotted Gary Hart, whom he didn't know too well. They shared a pot in the otherwise empty Senate dining room. After Cohen complained that this was an asinine way to run a cou ntry, he asked Hart what he'd rather be doing. Hart said, ``I'd rather be in Ireland writing a novel.''
Cohen said, ``Well, I'm half Irish and have always wanted to go to Ireland and have always wanted to write a novel. Since we can't go to Ireland, why don't we just write a novel.'' And so they did.
Hart flipped over a large brown envelope he was carrying and started jotting down ``a whole torrent of ideas between the two of us.'' They discovered shared concerns and interests that would be the ingredients of the story: Senate investigations, espionage, terrorism, the influx of drugs into the US, organized crime, and the John Kennedy assassination. After an hour, they had the outline for an entire international intrigue novel.
At 8 that morning, when Cohen got back to the Hill after showering and changing clothes, he glanced over the outline and said to himself, ``That's a heck of a story.'' He called Bill Adler, his literary agent in New York, who flew down the next evening to discuss the project with the two senators over dinner.
The senators told Mr. Adler they wanted to write a book together, not based on their names. ``We wanted the book to stand on its own merits,'' says Cohen.
Adler left for New York and called Cohen at 8:30 the next morning to say, ``I just sold your book.'' He sold the story to William Morrow & Co. without revealing the identities of its authors until the time of publication.
The protagonist of the novel is Tom Chandler, a US senator with presidential aspirations. He heads an intelligence committee task force investigating terrorism after the gruesome killing of the secretary of state's family. The novel has the pace and suspense of a good thriller, and the smell of reality -- details, complexities, and authentic possibilities. As Bob Woodward put it, ``[``The Double Man''] is an expertly crafted thriller that is full of many uncomfortable plausibilities.''
Chandler's investigation not only ensnares him in the shadowy business of present-day crime and espionage, but also plunges him into recent history, including the assassination of Mr. Kennedy.
``We tried to use Kennedy's assassination as a metaphor for our current existence,'' says Cohen, ``because there are so many things left undecided, unresolved, ambiguous. What we have found in our lives, as senators, is that the closer you are to things doesn't necessarily mean they are more clear, but sometimes more opaque. We were trying to deal with the absence of clarity, the ambiguity of all the people who had motives in the Kennedy assassination, and the undiscovered truth that may still be there. ''
Since publication last spring, ``The Double Man'' has become a Book of the Month Club Selection. It will also be published in England, France, Italy, Japan, and India, and a condensed version will appear in the November issue of Reader's Digest.
Meanwhile, Cohen's agent is trying to find a publisher for ``Baker's Nickel,'' the senator's second volume of poems. The title refers to his father, a Russian Jew who made his living as a baker.
When asked if he shares the presidential ambitions of his co-author and protagonist, Cohen immediately says, ``I let Gary Hart take care of any presidential aspirations.'' But whether the immediacy of his response came from resolution or from habit was less than certain.