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Cohen's Journey from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 5, 1997 – Becoming defense secretary was the furthest thing from Bill Cohen's mind as he retired from the Senate. But when President Clinton called and offered him the job, he said, it was impossible to turn down.

"I had no idea I would ever be called upon for this," Cohen said during recent interviews. "I was not planning on it, I was not seeking it. I had fulfilled my public service aspirations by completing 24 years on the Hill, and I was going to go out and be a private citizen."

Cohen, already the author or co-author of eight books, said he had planned to write another after he left the Senate. Instead he gave up the creative life for the nonstop pace, total dedication and commitment required at the Pentagon's helm.

Since taking office Jan. 24, Cohen has dealt with such issues as hazing in the Marine Corps, sexual harassment in the Army and controversy over the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. He presented the proposed fiscal 1998 budget to Congress and outlined his primary goals: recruiting and retaining quality people, maintaining readiness and modernizing the force. He also became involved with the Quadrennial Defense Review scheduled to report in May.

"The last 30 days have been the busiest time of my life," Cohen said. "It's exhilarating, and I was forewarned to be prepared for the unexpected."

It is a privilege to be defense secretary, Cohen said, to make a contribution in a time of great change. "There are a lot of tough decisions coming up as we head into the next century for which I know I'm going to receive a good deal of criticism, but I took the job knowing that. You can still derive a great deal of personal satisfaction out of tackling tough issues."

Cohen's day now begins at 4:30 a.m. The 56-year-old does 30 to 45 minutes of PT, followed by a shower, shave and a quick breakfast before his first staff meeting at 6:45. Policy meetings, intelligence briefs, press interviews, meetings with foreign defense leaders and other officials fill his schedule.

He meets frequently with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. He also testifies before Congress on military matters. Cohen leaves the Pentagon about 7 p.m., often carting briefing books to read at home until 11 or 12. He said he ends his day watching Nightline or Jay Leno, depending on his mood. Sometimes he needs a few laughs, he said.

In a recent interview, Cohen said his biggest challenge is consuming and digesting massive amounts of information so he can give direction and leadership to military and civilian defense officials.

"The volume of information is like a tidal wave; it just keeps coming," Cohen said. "I keep trying to whittle it down, but if I walk out of the room for 10 seconds, my military assistant will come in and dump another stack two feet high on my desk."

Cohen said he knew the job would take hard work and the total dedication of his time, but he also knew he would have the benefit of competent people working with him. He sought advice from former defense secretaries including Dick Cheney, Frank Carlucci, Harold Brown and Robert McNamara. He said he would like to meet with everyone who has served in the position and with former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So far, he said, the advice he's received has been direct and practical: "delegate" and "go out of the office."

"I want to pick out the things I can do well and not be overwhelmed by the office," Cohen said. "The biggest mistake I've detected is when someone tries to do everything. The key is to be on top of the issues, have a good team you feel confident you can delegate matters to and try to be expert in a few major policy areas."

Carlucci advised Cohen to be sure he leaves the Pentagon by 7 each night. "Carlucci said, 'If you don't set a time frame, you'll never get out of the office; it will simply keep coming. Take work home if necessary - but you've got to get out of the office.' I think that's good advice, because there's a tendency when you see that paper stacking up to not leave until it gets down, and you'll find yourself there at 11 or 12 ar night."

While his years in Congress prepared him to deal with the national security issues he now faces, Cohen said, life at the Pentagon is more disciplined and organized than on Capitol Hill.

"Everything is on time at the Pentagon," he said. "Every 15 minutes of my day is structured, which is very different from Capitol Hill, where time commitment is unstructured and disorganized. In the Senate, you waste a lot of time. There are quorum calls - time out - so you end up being very inefficient in how you use your time. There's a real premium of efficiency in this job, and that I find very attractive."

Cohen said he has been impressed by the military people he has met since taking office. "I'm excited by the esprit de corps you see in the Pentagon," he said. "It's inspiring to see so many bright, sharp people who really want to do well and want me to do well. It's inspiring to see that kind of intelligence, commitment and love of service."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDefense Secretary William Cohen tours Fort Jackson, S.C. training facilities with Army officers during a recent trip. Linda D. Kozaryn  
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