WASHINGTON — They were in the takeoff phase of a rocketing romance, Bill Cohen and Janet Langhart, dining in New York, clearly enjoying each other’s company. At the time he was Maine’s senior senator, rebounding from divorce, and she was host of a syndicated television talk show, recovering from her husband’s suicide.
As they left their table and headed toward the door, a diner who recognized Cohen approached in a familiar manner that presumed too much. “It must be very difficult for you,” he began.
In what way?
“Well, privacy. You probably don’t have any moments to yourself.”
It’s not bad. It’s a pretty good life, and I have my moments of privacy.
“Well, it must be very difficult for you.”
Well, to do what?
“Well, you know.”
The fellow obviously was struggling, but Cohen was certain he understood the stranger’s shorthand: white U.S. senator being romantic in public with a black woman. Still taboo.
“He couldn’t bring himself to say it,” Cohen recalls, “but that was what he was getting to.”
Seven years later, Cohen is secretary of defense and Langhart is first lady of the military. Together, they are perhaps America’s pre-eminent interracial couple. Which is to say a magnet for curiosity, examination, hope.
It’s not easy being a symbol of any kind, let alone carrying the extra weight that race often packs. They host dinners for foreign defense ministers, travel the globe representing their country, tour U.S. bases to exhort the troops. In the process they have become the best advertisement for the kind of dialogue and interpersonal racial progress President Clinton is now pushing, the kind of progress that can’t be legislated.
Washington has long been home to prominent interracial couples: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, Clinton’s budget director Franklin Raines and Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman all are in mixed marriages.
But it’s rare for an interracial couple with the stature of Cohen and Langhart to discuss candidly and publicly their views on race and the episodes that have shaped their thinking. To them, their union is testament that it’s possible to scale the cultural walls that divide many Americans.
“I take quite a measure of pride when I step off that plane that says `United States of America,’ and there is a woman that I am proud to have as a partner walking down that set of steps wherever we go,” Cohen says. It says that “this is not an issue for us,” he adds, “that this is something that transcends race, that two people can love each other.”
“When I look at Bill,” Langhart says, “I don’t see color, even though he’s got the most beautiful set of blue eyes I’ve ever seen. I don’t think color. I think Bill.”
Since 1970, the number of interracial married couples in the United States has quadrupled — evidence, it would seem, that attitudes about intermingling have softened after Jim Crow’s demise. The youngsters are leading the way: Fifty-seven percent of teen-agers in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll said they had dated interracially.
Yet the mere sight of a white man and a black woman together — or vice versa — still can provoke steely stares, whispered disparagements or worse.
Audrey Chapman, a prominent Washington couples therapist who has worked with interracial pairs, recounts an episode in which a black female friend and her white suitor were chased by a group of epithet-shouting white bullies as they strolled late at night in Manhattan’s theater district. Frightened and out of breath, they finally gained refuge in a trendy apartment building with a sympathetic doorman.
“The larger picture is there’s still a lot of racial tension and disharmony in America,” Chapman says.
Cohen and Langhart have not been confronted with the kind of scary situation Chapman described. But neither of them is naive.
Langhart acknowledges having to overcome her own “attitudes about how white people have treated my people and some of them have treated me.” She once went to an audition for a modeling part in a Hotpoint appliance ad, only to be told the company was still debating whether it was ready to let a black woman advertise its stoves and refrigerators.
“I thought, they have dogs in their ads … and I’m a black person and they’re going to have a big meeting about whether or not [to use me]?”
She walked away from the audition.
In taking her as his bride, Langhart says, “Bill had to be courageous because there are greater consequences, perhaps, to him for marrying me than any consequence to me for marrying him.”
“He could be considered an outcast. Why would you marry a black woman? Because his world sets the tone, at least they think they do.” She is talking about the world of influential white men. “Who has the power to be racist? The person in charge.”
So black people can’t be racist?
“I think we can have racial hatred comparable to theirs, probably with greater provocation,” she says. “On the other hand, we don’t have the power to prevent them from progressing the way that they can stifle our opportunities, whether it’s where our children go to school [or] whether or not we get the job.”
By and large, Cohen and Langhart say, they have been embraced by official Washington, hugged by their own nation and welcomed in other countries “with virtually no hostility expressed,” he says. “That has been more surprising to me,” Cohen states, “and pleasing, I must say.”
Discrimination or stupidity?
Historically, it has been more common to see black men wedding white women than the reverse. But according to research by American Enterprise Institute scholar Douglas Besharov, marriages between black women and white men are climbing faster. Of the black women who married last year, Besharov estimates, more than 5 percent married white men.
Even for the most high-powered of interracial couples, those who travel by chauffeur and are insulated from the kind of hate directed at the Manhattan couple, there’s always something. An ignorance to correct, a faux pas that wounds.
In the circles in which Cohen and Langhart move it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish racism from misperception, discrimination from stupidity. Call this the battlefield of subtlety. Here, prejudice is often locked away in minds and hearts where it can flourish in the darkness.
People who say, “Now wait a minute, I’m not racist, I’m not bigoted, I’m not,” Cohen asserts, “don’t really understand they could be saying something which, in fact, reveals it.”
They’ll be at dinner parties of Washington’s elite and the guests will turn to the only African-American at the table — Langhart — and initiate a discussion about Colin Powell.
“I can’t measure what they’re thinking,” she says, “but I would imagine by their behavior they were trying to seem tolerant and liberal. And while he’s well-deserving, Colin is, he’s the flavor of the month. It gives them a place to assuage whatever guilt they have for the trespasses of others of their kind. Or an effort to make me, an enlightened one, say that they’re equally enlightened.”
A former runway model, Langhart is striking, radiant. When she walks across a room, you can spot the eyes following. She has a piercing gaze and the seductive charm of an interviewer who knows how to get to the heart of the matter. But something about her beauty — smooth cafe au lait skin? flowing hair? green eyes? — causes some to verbally impale themselves. There was the time a U.S. senator asked Cohen which of Langhart’s parents was white, and the time two Duke University scientists posed a similar question to her late husband, who was white.
“I mean, what kind of nonsense is that?” she asks, wearing the frown of incredulity. “And I don’t think they mean any harm, I just think … some people have gotten caught up in that syndrome that if you’re white, you’re right.”
Her husband’s reaction to such insensitivities is often stronger than hers. “I think it hurts him more than it hurts me,” she says.
Together they radiate simpatico. Individually they are as different as Jell-O and creme brulee.
Cohen, 57, is the product of a two-parent home in a rural, overwhelmingly white New England community. His father, a baker, worked 18-hour days to provide for the family. Langhart, 55, was raised by a single mother, a hospital ward secretary, in an Indianapolis housing project. Her world was virtually all black.
Bookish and introspective, he writes poetry and mystery novels, and is fascinated by Civil War history. A world-class schmoozer, she loves big events — like the Kennedy Center Honors gala she and Cohen attended.
He’s a lifelong Republican. She’s a lifelong Democrat who worked in Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign.
At home, he relaxes by devouring a James Carroll memoir. She relaxes by devouring the competition on “Jeopardy!”
They were writing a novel together based loosely on their lives. It’s called “Fatal Connections.” But the project has been put on hold. Too busy right now.
Cohen and Langhart first met in 1974 when he, as a freshman congressman, was interviewed on the Boston-based “Good Day” show, which she co-hosted. They stayed in contact over the years. She would occasionally send him notes asking for his assessment on political figures she was interviewing. But it was a distant friendship.
When Cohen’s marriage to his college sweetheart dissolved in 1987, Langhart called to check on him. Cohen returned the concern when Langhart’s estranged husband, Robert Kistner, a prominent gynecologist and co-developer of the oral contraceptive, committed suicide in early 1990.
They began conversing by phone, then rendezvoused in New York that same year.
“We talked about life, about politics, about philosophy, poetry, his stuff,” she remembers. “Neither of us was the dating kind. We were never out there looking for a date, even when we were younger. So, it was like, `Oh, we’re friends. We can share.”‘
Though there was a strong mutual attraction, their relationship developed slowly.
“I was divorced in ’87 and lived alone for quite a few years,” Cohen recalls, “and kind of got adjusted to living alone, cooking too many microwave dinners.”
In October 1995, Cohen’s father collapsed suddenly at his bakery and died. The death prompted Cohen to think harder about the rest of his life. Three months later, he announced he was retiring from the Senate. “And then I said, Well, that’s one very big decision. Now, how about another one? And why don’t we get married? And Janet said yes.”
Three weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, they were wed in the Mansfield Room of the Capitol. The marriage — his second, her third — made sweet an otherwise traumatic period. Then, just as Cohen was preparing for private life, President Clinton asked if he wanted to be defense secretary. He couldn’t resist.
In Cohen, Clinton had found the perfect Republican to add some bipartisan flavor to his Cabinet: a respected moderate with a specialty in military affairs. During Cohen’s last two years in the Senate, Langhart observes, he was just “trudging along. But he’s come alive. It’s like his life is complete now.”
Processing racial angst
Cohen says, “I’ve always said, Well, why hasn’t she really achieved the kind of recognition that someone of this talent really should achieve?’ And all of the excuses I’ve heard over the years, it’s just been — I mean, it’s pathetic, in my words.”
Cohen believes Langhart, who broke into television nearly three decades ago as a weather forecaster in Chicago, should have made it all the way to the top — like Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters. Her career was progressing nicely until she was fired in 1987 from Boston’s Channel 5 for refusing to pick lottery numbers, saying she did not want to become “Vanna Black.”
She bounced around television for the next nine years, including stints as an “Entertainment Tonight” correspondent and as a Black Entertainment Television talk show host. But she never cracked the big time.
“I think race obviously had something to do with it. That’s my judgment,” Cohen says.
At points in Langhart’s career, according to Cohen, white television execs told her, “Well, you really are too attractive” or “you speak too well.” (Code: She’s not ethnic enough.)
“I’ve never heard that used against any person who is white,” he says. “She is also very forthright and very strong,” he adds, “and I think over the years that has presented problems to people who would expect her to be compliant or needy, subservient.
“Obviously, there are many stories I could tell,” he says, “and she could tell even more, but she is not complaining about it.”
Cohen’s right. She’s happy being the grande dame of defense and running Langhart Communications, which teaches corporate captains how to become more media-savvy. She’s planning to do some writing on the side, and some television on the side.
Cohen finds time to process America’s racial angst. He and Langhart talk about “how to raise the consciousness of people who believe that it’s not a factor in our lives.”
All you have to do is pick up a newspaper or turn on the television, he says, and you’ll get a jarring reminder of how much work needs to be done. “You read a story about the [black] man in Chicago who can’t wear a beret or drive a sports car because the minute he does, he gets stopped” by suspicious police, says Cohen. “It’s part of the reality that’s still with us.”
She’s unabashedly blunt
Talking to Janet Langhart is like having a good seat at the theater. She’s a one-woman play, answering questions with dramatic flourish, drawing you into her world.
Every now and then, she signals her disapproval of some inquiry — gently, though — by assuming the role of interviewer. Why is the interracial aspect of her marriage so interesting? She’s wary, but proceeds nonetheless.
You learn quickly that Langhart is unabashedly blunt — about almost everything. Like her observation that “success in this country sometimes is equated with whiteness” and her feeling that she has more in common with a black man “on the themes that impact me as an individual than I do with a white woman.”
Growing up in public housing in Indianapolis made her more race-conscious than gender-conscious, she says. Which leads to a question she knows some African-Americans ask themselves when they see her out with Cohen: Why is she with this white guy?
Answer: “I like how his mind works. He’s wired up in a special way. Deep, deep analytical way. Sensitive way … He’s very spiritual. Soulful.”
But sometimes she jokes with Cohen that when they walk into a roomful of black folks, “they love him and wonder about me.”
Making a positive statement
There was a time when the mere idea of a Cohen-Langhart power couple in America was unimaginable. It was only 30 years ago that the Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia and 15 other states. Occasionally, some horrific incident offers a reminder that the past is still with us: On Dec. 1, 1995, four skinheads pleaded guilty to firebombing the mobile home of an interracial couple in Richland, Miss.
For Cohen and Langhart, such news will always be grim. But it is not the stuff of their reality. Their life is still a dreamy romance, unfolding in the protected limelight of government jets and government security and state dinners. Unlike the Richland couple, theirs is a world of relatively modest annoyances. A defense secretary and his star wife, symbols of racial progress.
“Notwithstanding all the problems that we do have in our society,” Cohen says, “the fact that we can be married and be a visible couple with very little, if any, animosity expressed toward us … is a pretty positive statement.”