WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense William Cohen’s interest in exploring racial topics has a long history. When he was a senator, he was part of a small group on Capitol Hill that met informally to discuss race relations. He once co-chaired hearings on the impact of “gangsta” rap music on society, and is one of a dwindling number of prominent Republicans who still believe in affirmative action.
Back in the early 1970s, he was invited by then-District of Columbia Del. Walter Fauntroy to play with the Congressional Black Caucus in a benefit basketball game at Howard University. When he walked into the auditorium, he was booed and jeered, called “honky” and “white bread” by the black crowd. The hoots stopped once they saw that Cohen could shoot.
The experience gave him “just a little glimpse of what it must be like to be in a minority under those circumstances,” he says. “I had to demonstrate something beyond my color,” he adds, “in order to qualify for acceptance.”
In early 1995, he hand-delivered a letter to President Clinton at a Rose Garden ceremony. The letter made the case for giving the subject of race concentrated focus, perhaps convening a national summit. It was one of many suggestions that helped convince Clinton he needed to pull the country into a more thoughtful discussion of race. Six months ago, the president launched a yearlong initiative, complete with an advisory board and national town hall meetings like the one he conducted recently in Akron, Ohio.
So it seems the letter was a little ahead of its time. That letter was written not by Cohen, but by his future wife, Janet Langhart.