Interview – Cohen

“Bridging the ‘Huge Non-Fit'”

Interview with David Cohen 
Conducted by Lawrence Wittner (State University of New York at Albany) Washington, DC, July 19, 1999
> View as PDF


David Cohen is a long time Washington lobbyist with a strong commitment to nuclear arms control. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Cohen served as the president of Common Cause, the largest voluntary membership organization in the United States working on government accountability issues and co-haired the SALT II Citizens Committee.

With the debate over nuclear arms control rising to national prominence in the early 1980s Cohen established the Professionals’ Coalition for Nuclear Arms Control in 1982 as a comprehensive lobbying group representing the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Lawyers Alliance for Nuclear Arms Control. From 1984 to 1992, he worked as the Professionals’ Coalition’s president to stop the U.S. nuclear arms build-up by supporting arms control agreements and reducing the military budget.

In this 1999 interview Cohen details the frequently slow and demanding process of congressional lobbying for nuclear arms control in the 1980s and describes his effort to build an effective lobbying network gaining leverage for the Professional Coalitions’ key campaigns against the MX Missile, SDI and advocating the nuclear test ban.

Cohen also examines the habitually divergent attitudes prevailing among the grass roots Nuclear Freeze movement and the advocates of similar aims on Capitol Hill.  He recalls a “huge non-fit between the grass rooters of that movement and the policy wonks of this town” and accordingly the movements trouble to translate their activism into practicable politics. Accordingly, his own role resulted not from extensive experience in the nuclear freeze movement, but the fact that “[he] was seen as someone who could help the people be effective.”

Today, David Cohen is the Senior Congressional Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation where his work focuses on providing legislative analysis and strategic advice on Congressional affairs. He is also a senior advisor to Experience Corps, a senior fellow at Civic Ventures, and the president of Global Integrity.

Interview Transcript

Asked about his role as a co-chair of the SALT II Citizens Committee, DC responded:  “I was tapped for it because I was president of Common Cause. . . .  Common Cause was supporting SALT II.  It was not among the usual kinds of things that Common Cause does, accountability issues.  I took a strong lead because I thought it was important to ratify the treaty and, in effect, spent political capital within Common Cause to get us into the SALT II effort.  And the reason was that Common Cause had cut its eye-teeth really on the anti-Vietnam War effort. . . .  So you could make a case that there was a kind of a legacy, and I made that case and sold the board on it.  A lot of people were not eager to get into it because it didn’t seem to be in character with all the accountability issues.  But from a governance end, it was very important to have the treaty ratified.  Otherwise, you set the whole Presidency back in the direction of foreign relations.

And so, out of that, this committee, which I think was a White House creation — the Carter White House — they obviously wanted a Republican, and they saw us as a significant citizens’ group and that was one of the reasons I was asked to be part of it.”  Asked if they got any significant Republican support, DC replied:  “It was always problematic. . . .  These things are mostly tokens. . . and already the Republicans were beginning to shift in philosophy to a conservative party.  The moderates were getting wiped out.  We announced the committee, had a press conference, did our thing and I think a day or two later the Russian violations happened” [i.e. discovery of the Soviet brigade in Cuba]. . .  I worked closely with Cranston on it, and advising the White House on what they should do. . . .  And then it got withdrawn.

I finished my tenure at Common Cause, and the Nuclear Freeze movement starts.  And that’s kind of interesting because it starts outside of Washington, and there was a huge non-fit between the grassrooters of that movement and the policy wonks of this town, who could tell you all the reasons why a Freeze was not the appropriate answer.  In the course of that period, I was asked by the leaders of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Lawyers Alliance for Nuclear Arms Control — they were three organizations based in Boston . . . to lobby for them, to represent them in Washington.  I told them you can’t do anything effective unless we could really use the membership of these organizations as a lobbying arm.  And so, out of that, we created the Professionals Coalition . . . at the end of `82, start of `83 . . . .  And that I would be the head of it, and we would try to work to develop a small staff that would relate to the members of these organizations.”

In Washington at the time, “with the exception of the Council for a Livable World. . . the rest of the groups coming out of the Nuclear Freeze movement and SANE earlier were really unsophisticated and, also, pretty alienated from believing that they could have an impact on the system.  They were great at protest.  Central Park [in June 1982] was obviously a significant event.  But being able to translate that kind of activity into practical stuff was not their stuff.  And, indeed, you’d find them during the Nuclear Freeze debate, they were all inside offices off the Hill watching the damned thing on television, instead of what we all do, which is stand on the House floor. . . [?] even at the last minute.  So part of the challenge — one of the reasons I was asked to do this — was that I did have some history in the movement, but more important, I was seen as someone who could help the people be effective, add some skill and sophistication.  

The other thing that became important in this was that Common Cause — with campaign finance, Reagan, and all that — saw the nuclear arms issue as a critical issue.  Common Cause’s culture is to get into something very specific, and the thing they chose to get into in a big way — and we all did — was the MX missile fight. . . .  People like myself, and former colleagues in Common Cause, all saw this as a way of stopping a weapon system; therefore you would have some political clout, which is what was important in arms control — to change the dynamic around to increase Congressional responsibility.

And then, of course, Reagan got into the Star Wars thing.  And we all got into that, too, to prevent Star Wars from happening.  Defense is really offense, and so on. . . .  

The Nuclear Freeze fight and . . . the MX fight . . . created a corps of legislators, particularly in the House.  And in the `80s, with the consequences of the Voting Rights Act of `65, you began to get a shift in the House in which Southern Democrats who replaced other Southern Democrats were not conservatives.  They were moderate; they may not have been like Bob Drinan and Bella Abzug, but they were national people, they believed in coalition politics, they were responsive to black constituencies on domestic stuff.  And the dynamic was very, very different.  What I’m saying is, there was essentially the beginnings of a moderate to liberal majority in the House. . . .  

And, out of the MX fight, we began to create a corps of people, among ourselves on the outside, working with people on the inside, a group of legislators who were interested in arms control.  Tom Downey was one of them, Markey was another, Barney Frank — there were a whole group of `em.  And some guys from California as well.  And, in that period, the MX was stopped, it was revived, and it took many, many votes, but it was finally stopped as a first-strike weapon.  That was a significant fight, because it created a corps of people who learned how to fight together and work together.  And, out of that, we began to develop something called the Monday Lobby Group.  Every Monday, all the groups met.  It was a little bit like a fair.  Everybody marketed, everybody brought their issues.  And we didn’t get into the stuff of voting on issues.  People could work on whatever they wanted to work on.  It was a classic network.  And out of that, we structured what became called working groups.  And the working groups worked on different issues.  

One of those issues, among other things, was [the] test ban.  This, in addition to the MX and Star Wars, which were the priority issues for the Professionals Coalition — the third priority issue became the test ban, which was important to the Physicians for Social Responsibility.  And it was important to me because of all this history that I told you about.  This was carrying on from the Stevenson legacy to the test ban treaty of `63, etc.  This was not a priority for a lot of other groups.  It was for SANE, it was for PSR.  But it wasn’t for the others.  Out of our coalition efforts, we all supported a common program, even though we all didn’t work equally hard on that common program.  
And the question was, how to get started on this issue? There were two schools of thought. . . .  One school said you go for legislation straightaway.  And the other school, of which I was a member and strong advocate of, said you go for a more modest thing, a resolution to get people into the habit of supporting the idea and calling on the President.  Then, knowing he’s not going to do it, you go to the next stage.  It was kind of intense.  Needless to say, as always happens in these things, you get accused of selling out, not being true blue, the grassroots don’t understand it.  And some of us believed that you could explain these things, and people will understand it.  It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t continue to want to ban the testing.  But this is a route to do it.  This view ultimately prevailed.  And, indeed, the House in a remarkable action, passed some significant amendments to the Defense authorization bill — which for years would just roll through the House in a kind of a mindless way — and this became the vehicle.  It became the vehicle because there was a moderate to liberal majority in the House, it was a sympathetic Rules committee. . . .  We had the sophistication to help — working with allies in the House.  I’m not saying we did it all on the outside by ourselves.  We had Tip O’Neill’s support and other people.  It became the majority position.  Guys like Dick Gephardt and Tony Coelho — the political apparatchiks of the Democrats in the House — recognized the value of arms control as a good Democratic liberal issue against Reagan’s `evil empire.’  That became the conflict.

And everybody . . . was willing to be responsive to the community, and the community stayed united on this stuff. . . .  So were able to work on this and actually get some legislation into the House bill.  It ultimately would lose, because you’d lose in the Senate and in conference it wouldn’t work.  That happened in the beginning.  But after `84, `85, later on, we were able to get actual legislation through both bodies.  And when the Democrats regained the majority in the Senate, George Mitchell got interested in this.  And I think . . . it was `89 or `90, the legislation was passed which blocked testing.  So the role that was played here was in getting the Congress ready to take those steps.  And they started with moderate steps.  But they were all designed for a strategy of getting to the point where you’d have legislation and you’d change the policy.  

I remember one wonderful time . . . Sala Burton, who succeeded her husband Phil, who was of course a liberal stalwart and an effective legislator, one day I ran into her. . . .  I said:  `You know, Sala, I’ve just come from a press conference.  Alan Cranston was there.  Jim Wright was there, speaking out in support of the test ban.’  Wright was then the majority leader.  I was not a fan of Wright’s. . . .  She said:  `He’s terrific on this issue.  We were in Europe together, and you should have heard him.  We were in one of these Congressional delegation meetings.’  She was telling me all about his passion.  All totally credible.  Along comes Sam Gejdenson, Congressman from Connecticut . . . and then all three of us, spontaneously, began talking to one another in Yiddish. . . .  Sala was telling me about how passionate Wright was about this.  And he was, and he was helpful all through it, as was Tip O’Neill, and Tony Coelho, everybody at the leadership level.  And one of the key players in this — and this was a central part of the strategy — one of the people who had taken the lead on this issue was Pat Schroeder.  Pat Schroeder is a wonderful person, but she doesn’t influence a lot of people.  And it was important to try and weave in the House Foreign Affairs Committee . . . of which Dante Fascell was the chairman.  Fascell is a liberal. . . .  On top of that, we had a very close working relationship institutionally out of Common Cause. . . .  We met with Fascell. . . .  We wanted him to take the lead on the test ban issue and work with him to deal with the strategy.  And that’s how we began to do it.  Because you don’t want people on the margins, you want people who are regular.  And that was an important part of it.”

On Star Wars:  “UCS had all the substantive stuff on” this.  “We did some very interesting things, though.  UCS brought in some scientists, who were very effective communicators with people, meaning politicians.  And one of the things that was cooked up . . . was a briefing session with the scientists, with some interested members of the House Appropriations Committee, all of whom were Democrats — but it wasn’t limited to Democrats, there were no Republicans who were interested — who got educated on Star Wars.  I forget the name of the scientist now [Richard Garwin]. . . but he was just an extraordinarily good communicator.  So he could take this complex stuff and put it into language that politicians who are . . . certainly not in the science culture . . . could understand . . . and then feel that they are competent.  And what was terrific about that when we structured that with UCS was to have it only for the House members.  No staff was allowed.  Interest groups weren’t there. . . .  This was held as a seminar at 7:30 in the morning, it was really a kind of working seminar.  It must have met 3 or 4 times over the course of 2 or 3 months.”  Consequently, “you had a core of people who really understood what the issue was and they could wage that fight.  

The other thing was taking advantage of our anniversaries.  On August 6, 1985, . . . UCS and PSR brought in some of the people who were still living who had worked on the Bomb.  And then spoke out for the test ban.  It wasn’t done in a rally . . . but in a kind of seminar.  So you had Hans Bethe there, and Philip Morrison, and other people. . . .  A lot of people went to [it]. . . .  There were members of Congress there.  So this became a form of education, and very, very important — knowing how to use anniversaries in a creative way.”

Asked about the most active constituencies that could be mobilized by the Professionals Coalition, DC replied:  “The three organizations — and we also had computer people, social workers, and psychologists — but the key thing was to be able to target at different times.  But not last-minute targeting.  It had to do much more with using the credence, the cachet of being a professional, of being a doctor, some kind of a lawyer, and being able to meet with your legislator.  It was using an elite approach.  We worked a lot with former officials, as did everybody in the movement.  It was, I think, a very important thing, because the administration no longer had a monopoly on expertise.  So you could call on a William Colby on the MX issue, for example, or call on other people, including Paul Warnke and others like that, who were able to add a lot of credentialing to the thing.”

On Jeremy Stone:  “Jeremy Stone . . . was very inside.  He didn’t believe much in lobbying.  So he was not a player on the Hill.  But he had access to people in the administration, and people in the bureaucracy, and other scientists.”

Asked what impact the Professionals Coalition and, more broadly, the ND movement had on US govt nuclear programs, DC responded:  “I think the Freeze Campaign was important only because it . . . was a movement-building issue.  Yes, it was lost legislatively.  But there were people who got into the Freeze activity who were older than I am now who absolutely had never done anything before.  But they were thinking about the legacy for grandchildren.  And it changed their lives.  They’re active people. . . .  So that was the important part of it.  It meant that there had to be a political response.  And what it did was it recognized that there both had to be a movement in the grassroots along with all these folks who were experts.  When people went to work — and all sorts of former officials who were challenging the MX would go out to Greensboro, North Carolina to make a speech or Nashville, Tennessee . . . — they were turned on by the fact.  They’d lived in a coccoon in this elite Washington policy wonk world.  Some of them, like Pete Scoville . . . was former deputy director of the CIA, not used to dealing with `the unwashed’ in civic activities — maybe `the unwashed’ in other activities, but not in civic activities.  It was a whole new life for them.  

And so . . . I think the things that were accomplished were clearly a contribution on the policy result.  I think it mattered that serious legislators could work with serious people.  Those of us who understood how the Congressional system worked wouldn’t go around attacking them if they were off a millimeter on something, could work things out. . . .  We used to have Wednesday morning meetings, they were called the Downey Group, `cause the meetings were in Tom Downey’s office.  Maybe 8, 10 legislators would come, with 8, 10 of us, and we’d sit around and talk, and discuss the week’s activities, and what the assignments were.  We had a two source rule on all these significant votes — a two source rule meaning Cohen would talk to a [House] member and find out where he stood, or someone else would, and so would a member talk to a member.  Now members don’t always hear well, they like to hear what they want to hear, so they needed the source as well as we needed the source.  Or we would hear from grassroots that so-and-so had written a letter that was pretty clear. . . .  It was a very lively period.

And the second period was the Senate part, which I think is equally important, which Council for a Livable World gets a lot of credit for, in my mind.  They would have a group of us come, once a month, and we’d meet with Senate staffers and all these issues would get hashed out — not debated, but discussed, hashed, not everybody had the same point of view.  But it was a way of bringing people together to talk things out. . . .  You tend not to get Senators at these things, you tend to get staffers who are pretty important.”  In the House, “you’ve got both. . . .  So those were the kinds of . . . settings that were created.  The Senate staff guys, at the beginning, in the early `80s, thought they couldn’t do anything about anything.  Because they just lived as a minority in their little cubbyhole, writing some amendment or writing some report.  And they had absolutely no sense of what was going on out in the country.  So this became a vehicle to sort of open them up somewhat.”

Asked about Congressional action on the MX missile as a victory or defeat for the movement, DC said that, although MX legislation passed, the MX was no longer a first strike weapon, thanks to the sharp reduction in the numbers of missiles.  “That met the objective.  Yes, I know 50 were constructed.  And, indeed, when we waged the fight, after the first 50 we authorized, there was a discussion within the movement:  should we ask for a rollback [to 0 missiles] or not?  Some thought we should.  People like me thought that was not credible . . . and that we wouldn’t be treated credibly, and that when that amendment were offered, after coming so close to stopping it, we’d get our hardcore vote, and the challenge is always to get beyond your hardcore. . . .  But the fact is that the first strike aspect of it is very important.”  The 50 built were not a significant escalation of the arms race.  “How is the thing stopped in the end?  It was stopped not by a straight vote that says don’t build any more.  The decision, instead of being left to the President as these things normally are delegated . . . in the legislation, Congress had to take a vote to go for more.  So this little procedural gimmick was the thing that thwarted it.  So, technically, you could say that they never voted it down.  But, functionally, they did.  They couldn’t expand beyond 50 unless Congress specifically said so.  I think this is seen as a genuine [movement] victory, celebrated as such. . . .

SANE anchored down the left wing of our world. . . .  

One of the things that is very important were the ads that came from the Bishops — the public service ads or the ads that they did on the nuclear stuff.  And all the work that Brian Hehir did.  Brian Hehir, because he had such important access to the church officials, and he himself was so knowledgeable about this, could articulate things in a great Jesuit way.  The Catholic church was an important ally in this.  Now they weren’t there on the lobbying thing.  But I can tell you that, on the day of the MX vote, when we finally won, there were about 4 key votes that we were working on in the last minute.  And I called John Carr [ ? ], who is the executive secretary of the U.S. Catholic Conference, and told him about that, and asked him to see what you can do, how can you be helpful?  And he was. . . .  He knows his world.  And he knew who we could tap. . . .  More than Bishop Gumbleton, who was always there with us.  But he knew who he could tap.  And it just helped. . . .”

Asked about the INF treaty, DC said:  “The Reagan administration . . . was no more monolithic than other administrations.  And Schultz played an important role, and really did a lot of preparation on this.  I think a lot of this is laid out very well in Don Oberdorfer’s book.”  Shultz played an important role “in negotiating with Gorbachev, and making the `evil empire’ . . . not casting it in a kind of purdah.  You did have a relationship with it.”  

Asked if the administration’s shift toward AC and D reflected movement pressure, DC responded:  “Yes and no.  I don’t think the movement part had a real relationship with the administration.  But I also think that there was a recognition that there had to be negotiations.  I think people felt the political pressures of that.  In other words, I think they felt they could not carry on as they did in the early `80s.  And, in that sense, I think the politics, movement pressures were important because they had an influence on public attitudes.  The country remained centrist, so the movement was able to occupy a lot of the middle because it was showing how extreme the administration was in rejecting these negotiations.  Also, the ability to popularize stuff by calling, instead of Strategic Defense Initiative, which was a real positive for the administration, to shift the language to Star Wars, was a very important thing in waking people up.  So I think some of the apocalyptic people in our world — like Helen Caldicott, for example — . . . inspired the faithful, but I don’t think she would have an influence on other people.  On the other hand, I think the administration, just not being able to be responsive, look reasonable, people could sense Gorbachev was changing, that all influenced things.  So, in that sense, I think the movement did play a role.  It didn’t allow itself to be marginalized.  That was a very important thing.  I would argue that the work that was done on the Hill was important, not in the sense that someone out in Omaha really knew what was going on or understood.  But it shifted attitudes, it shifted the way people talked and thought about these things.  It was important, it was an important anchor as part of our legitimacy.”

In response to LW’s statement that, on the INF treaty, the Democratic constituency in Congress lined up with the Reagan administration to isolate the hard Right, DC said:  “That’s right.  That’s a very good point.  Malcolm Wallop, Jesse Helms, there were 4 or 5 or 6 of them like that. . . .  The public just trusted Reagan on these things.  If he says it’s OK, it’s OK. . . .  That point’s a good point.”

As to attitudes toward the USSR:  “We weren’t with Richard Pipes.  On the other hand, we didn’t have illusions about the Soviets. . . .  Some of us took a positive position in support of human rights in Eastern Europe, and did not mind legislative restraints that way — in part because we believed in it and wanted to identify with people like that. . . .  I felt and I articulated this point, which was not always shared by everyone in the arms control community among the policy practitioners, that it was important we be pro-human rights, pro-civil liberties, pro-civil society — that whole line of thought — precisely because we were pressing for negotiations.  We’re not negotiating out of love, we’re negotiating out of a sense of strategic interest and being confident that we’re not going to be taken to the cleaners on negotiations.  And that we should be asserting democratic values.  There were some publications, I think, that were critical of that view.  That wasn’t something that dominated our discussions, but it was out there.”

Asked what happened to the Professionals Coalition, DC said:  “In 1991, . . . we said we had . . . met our purposes and it was time to go out of business, as a success and for others to carry on.  So it was meant for its time.  We had a ceremony to celebrate.”  Asked if the leaders of the Professionals Coalition felt they had contributed to the AC and D measures that had preceded that, DC responded:  “Absolutely.  Absolutely. . . .  I don’t share that view [`peace through strength’] at all.  I think that this was `peace through common sense,’ and recognizing that you have to have relationships, and negotiate.  

A lot of the fights continue.  I was just asking John Isaacs [of the CLW] the other day:  `How pleased are you, John, that the F-22 will not be built?’  And he said:  `Very pleased, `cause it shows that you can stop a weapons system.’  He would have chosen a different one.  But what difference does it make?  This is the argument about MX.  Is the MX the thing to go on?”

Asked about the importance of international activity, DC said:  “Oh, I thought it was important.  It was especially important in the gloomy periods, and it was important when people came over here and helped educate legislators.  Many of the German SPDers were over here; I thought they were very important.”  Also “guys like Denis Healey.”  They met with members of Congress.  “I think the protest activities were important, in that they woke people up. . . .  We played a role . . . in helping navigate them through . . . who’s good to see, who’s a priority, that kind of thing.  That included Willy Brandt, Egon Bahr.  One of my joys in my public life was to live with Willy Brandt for 4 days.”  But, “if there was a real connection with people from New Zealand, I didn’t know about it.  I think on this we were Eurocentric.”