May 24, 2019

Bill Cohen casts a long shadow

Mr. Lancaster, a managing partner in the Pierce Atwood law firm in Portland, delivered these remarks in May during a farewell dinner for Sen. Cohen in Augusta.

In my travels around the nation, I find the same question echoes everywhere: How does a small state like Maine produce people of the caliber of Bill Cohen and the other leaders it has spawned? You know the answer: Maine people are special. They are the product of the special, value-oriented environment which is Maine. And Olympia Snowe and our next Republican senator will continue and enhance that reputation.

But despite our confidence in our candidates and our sure sense that a Republican will succeed Bill in 1997, there is an overwhelming sense of sadness and sorrow which pervades this place and program, because Bill Cohen is leaving the Senate.

Those of us who send people to Washington, those of us who shout and cheer and exult at pre- and post-election functions like this have but a limited sense of the responsibility and the burden our representatives bear. Their workload has become nearly overwhelming, both in volume and in complexity. The national decline in morality is reflected in the dilution of civility in all our professions, including the political profession. And that unhappy combination of unappreciated workload and oppressive work atmosphere has caused a major exodus of people of stature from the national political stage. And yes, Bill Cohen is leaving the Senate.

But, you can’t be a friend to Bill and not wish him well. He has earned whatever lies ahead of him. He has the right to reap the benefits which have excluded him while he labored on our behalf.

Bill Cohen has cast a long shadow. His bright mind, his Maine work ethic, his enormous investment of energy, his love of this state and his nation have thrust him into political prominence. He rides the crest of the wave, and his political promise shines so brightly that many Maine citizens have trouble coming to grips with the fact that this statesman will no longer represent them. It is that delicate difficulty of differentiating between voluntary contribution to public service and an obligation to continue laced to the shafts until you drop that has confounded so many of us in the face of the fact that Bill Cohen is leaving the senate.

We simply don’t want to lose him.

But if you step back with me and look at his service and accomplishments and then ask yourselves why does he not have the right to step off the stage at a time of his choosing rather than one of ours, the answer is clear:

He has earned the right to lay down his oars.

Both by seniority and reputation, Bill Cohen has assumed an international stature unappreciated by most Maine residents. To us he is Bill — our Bill — a Bangor boy who has served this state with distinction. To the rest of the world — statesmen, world leaders, people of wealth and prominence — he is Sen. Cohen: a man of wisdom and wit; a man of learning and letters; a man to be respected; a man to be followed; a man whose combined talents speak mightily of accomplishment.

We Bangor expatriates know Hancock Street at its best and its worst. The world knows Pennsylvania Avenue at its best and its worst. Bill Cohen has known both.

We know the baker’s son. The world knows the polished poet and public spokesperson, the learned lawyer and lawgiver. Bill Cohen is both.

We know Maine values and how they infect us at every level. The world knows Potomac fever and wonders why someone like Bill Cohen is not diseased.

The answer lies in words like integrity, probity, justice, fairness. The answer lies in deep Maine roots.

In Frost’s words, Bill took `the road less traveled by” and that has made an enormous difference in all our lives. And now our trails diverge again. To this point, he has never forgotten his Bangor roots. From Ruby’s eye, through wandering walks, to current concerns, Maine has remained his focus. But Bill Cohen is leaving the Senate. What of the future? Will he disappear into Washington’s asphalt jungle? Trade truth and tolerance for material means? Forget the state he served with honor?

If, as he wrote, a poem is a window into the soul of the writer, we must look there to see what of Bill Cohen we can claim for our own. There is clearly a pattern. A man who could write “Indian Point” or “Close to Eden” or “Blue Star” or “October Sunday” will never be totally lost to Maine.

Bill, other interests may take you out of Maine, but nothing will ever be able to take Maine out of the man who authored those poems.

There is a special magic for those of us who were born here or who were fortunate enough to find the natural beauty of this state. You captured that magic for us when — during one of your walks — you wrote “A Little Greener Now.”

I feel a little greener cleaner somehow for having walked through the woods today.

The wind whispered to the trees in hushed tones, (which) though not fully heard could still be understood.

Pines pierced the sky and held back the light from the night beneath, where minor creatures went at ease, and rocks wore moss in cool shades of suede.

Silence there was shattered only by a caw or winged cry, some sudden dark flutter that warned all others of the strange passerby.

I paused just long enough under those needled boughs to hear a harmony too perfect to be reproduced by man.

I hugged the shadows, kissed the leaves was loved in return, it seemed, by the breeze, and felt the green fill of life flow from the trees gently unto me.

Then I turned and left that dark unmapped retreat and dissolved into the roar and ruin of the street.

For those of us who love to hunt, who love to fish, who simply love to walk the woods, those words capture moments we have known. Yes, Bill Cohen is leaving the senate, but he can never leave Maine.

Bill, the woods will be here. A haven. A glen of peace and tranquility and beauty. Your friends will be here. Come home often.

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