In 1972, a 32-year-old Bangor lawyer won election to a U.S. House seat in Maine’s hardscrabble 2nd Congressional District.

Bill Cohen, a Republican with an independent streak, settled into a cozy spot in the Longworth House Office Building and began what turned out to be a long career in politics that took him to the U.S. Senate for three terms and then a turn as secretary of defense for President Bill Clinton.

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, then a young woman from Caribou, once served on his staff, helping to drive him around and, later, as a committee staffer.

Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen speaking in Bangor in 2019. Natalie Williams/The Bangor Daily News via AP

Cohen, 80, said Friday that he sees something of himself in another freshman congressman from Maine, Democrat Jared Golden, who occupies, by sheer happenstance, the same second-floor office where Cohen kicked off his career on Capitol Hill.

In a joint Zoom session with Golden, Cohen said he admires the lawmaker’s service in the Marines as a young man and appreciates that he’s “very thoughtful, very humble and very independent-minded.”

“That is something that has always appealed to me,” said Cohen, who has endorsed Golden, including with an online ad, as well as supporting Collins and Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden. Golden, who lives in Lewiston, faces Republican Dale Crafts of Lisbon in the Nov. 3 election.

Golden, 38, of Lewiston was still in high school while Cohen led the military, something that seemed far from his home beside his parents’ golf course in Leeds.

But when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, Golden’s life veered toward Cohen’s in ways he never could have imagined.

The young Mainer signed up with the Marine Corps and wound up serving combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, where his unit helped guard an Army unit specifically charged with finding Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.

For Golden, that awful day almost two decades ago remains fresh. He listens sometimes to recordings of firefighters rushing up the stairs of those skyscrapers in New York City, an example of the commitment to service that drew him to the military and steered him into politics.

For Cohen, who had worried about bin Laden as the civilian leader at the Pentagon, 9/11 still stings.

Golden said he realizes now that his life was “coming into a connection” with Cohen way back then as each engaged in trying to protect the country and the Constitution.

Cohen, he said, “has done it all” and he looks up to him as a role model of what a lawmaker should do, including a willingness to put partisanship aside and to dip into Maine’s legendary independent streak that has been seen time and again through generations of its elected representatives.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Lewiston speaking in Augusta in 2019. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Cohen said he is “really impressed” with the Democrat who holds his old congressional seat.

When Golden got to Washington, holding a seat on the Armed Services Committee, he called Cohen and asked to come over and talk.

“How can I be successful?” Golden asked the veteran politician, Cohen said.

He said Golden starts “several notches above his peers in Congress” because he’s one of a shrinking number of legislators who has served the nation in combat.

But it was more than that that drew Cohen to him.

Cohen said when he entered Congress, he hired the best and brightest for his staff, never asking them about their political affiliations because he didn’t care. He wanted energetic, ethical and intelligent aides who would offer their advice and their help.

“I’ll deal with politics,” he added. Having good people around him, Cohen said, “made me look smarter than I am.”

During his first year in the House, Cohen landed in the middle of the impeachment hearings related to the misconduct of President Richard Nixon, “an extraordinary experience” that was “the last thing you want to do” given its gravity.

U.S. Rep. William Cohen walking near the U.S. Capitol in 1973. File photo

When Cohen heard the audiotapes Nixon had secretly made of his conversations with underlings and others, he realized the president had breached his constitutional obligations and committed crimes. It led him to break with Nixon, the leader of his party, who ultimately resigned when he recognized he would be impeached and convicted otherwise.

Cohen said Golden found himself in a similar position when the House had to decide last year whether to impeach Donald Trump, another president who “crossed the line” into what Cohen called extortion by tying U.S. aid to Ukraine to finding dirt on a political opponent.

Golden, who voted for one of two counts of impeachment, said he “saw the abuse of power for what it was” and had no choice but to demand accountability.

The difference between Watergate and Trump’s impeachment, Cohen said, is, that in the 1970s, he and other Republicans were willing to stand for the country against their party’s president. That hasn’t happened with Trump, he said, and it worries him that in the entire Congress only Golden and U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, broke ranks with their party on impeachment-related votes.

Golden and Cohen said politicians have to be willing to meet each other in the middle.

“That really is the secret,” Cohen said.

He said people who feel passionately about issues “tend to plant their flagpole in the end zone” on one side or the other. “That’s not where most people live,” Cohen said.

What’s really needed is for political leaders to recognize that the fight requires them to struggle between the two 40-yard line stripes because midfield is where the action is, where things happen, where something can get done.

Ideological purity, Cohen said, makes for “very little progress.”

Golden said he’s concerned that the government is losing the ability to find common ground somewhere in the middle.

“I just don’t believe in this hatred and division and this effort to vilify one another,” Golden said.

Cohen said it’s a dangerous trend because when Congress can’t act, the president inevitably grows more powerful. With Trump at the helm setting the tone, he said, that trend has brought “a rogue’s lineup” and a disregard for the rule of law.

Golden said Cohen’s refusal to follow a party line, and his readiness to reach out to those with different ideas, is an example of “what we’re losing in politics” and what must be found again for the good of the country.

Golden said he’s sought to be an independent voice and to stand up for his constituents, not his party.

“It’s not about us, the people holding the position,” he said. “It’s about you,” the people. “It’s about delivering to the people you serve.”

“No side has all the answers,” Cohen said. “Without people coming together on a common set of principles, nothing gets done.”


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