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Hollywood funding and ego can go a long way

By C.T. Rossi
web posted January 28, 2002

While singling a Washington political figure for egomaniacal, childish, self-serving behavior is akin to singling out a fish as appearing particularly wet, occasions do arrive when a strange creature does emerge from the depths especially worthy of notice. Enter Janet Langhart Cohen, wife of former defense secretary, William Cohen. Upon taking up his position, Secretary Cohen, though overburdened with the $52,000 renovation of his Pentagon office, did take time to set up his wife with a job at the USO — the entertainment provider of the American military for over six decades.

It was in 1940 when Franklin D. Roosevelt petitioned the YMCA, YWCA, National Catholic Community Service, the National Jewish Welfare Board, the Traveler's Aid Association and the Salvation Army to pool their resources to provide entertainment to American military forces. By early 1941, Congress had chartered the United Service Organizations as a non-profit charitable corporation. It wasn't long before Bob Hope and the Andrews Sisters had signed on to do their part to entertain our boys overseas. Hope and the USO soon became synonymous in the minds of most Americans, as he traveled over the face of the globe, especially at Christmastime, to provide a diversion from the horrors of war. His years of dedicated service to the USO, led Hope to the title of "Goodwill Ambassador" for the organization.

Needless to say, the now 98 year-old Hope has not been an active advocate and performer for the USO since the early 1990's. In 1997 to fill this void USO president John Tilelli, cleverly blending a practical need for a spokesman with a sycophantic opportunity to curry favor with the secretary of defense, named Janet Langhart Cohen with the honorific title, "The First Lady of the USO" — conveniently coming on the heels of Ms. Cohen securing offices for the group in the Pentagon itself. But Tilelli miscalculated the effects of this camarilla intrigue — the apparent ploy back-fired.

Janet Langhart Cohen

Appellations are generally understood as pieces of panegyric currency, oral in use and flattering in nature. Not to Ms. Cohen. She reportedly demanded stationery emblazoned with a "First Lady of the USO" legend. (To say it would be odd to see such appellations used in an official written capacity is fair enough. Unless, of course, you expect Alexander Solzhenitysn to give you a business card with "Former Soviet Dissident" stamped on it or prison letter from Manuel Noriega — "From the desk of the deposed Panamanian strongman . . .") Tilelli denied Ms. Cohen's request.

With the ascension of the Bush administration and Donald Rumsfeld as the new man at defense, there was no need to worry about the lame-duck diva. By November 2001, Janet Langhart Cohen's term on the USO board of directors had expired and one would assume that John Tilelli breathed a little easier.

Little did Tilelli expect Langhart Cohen's next move. Hell hath no fury like a First Lady of the USO spurned. Janet Langhart Cohen, in a burst of arrogance and self-importance that would make a Clinton blush, launched a rival organization to the USO — not surprisingly named the Janet Langhart Cohen Citizen Patriotic Tour. She then proceeded to book performers who were USO regulars, and at a manner which, some entertainers have suggested, gave the impression that they were signing up for a USO tour of duty.

In an age of hyper-politicization, it wouldn't be surprising to hear that the USO was involved in battles over specific entertainment acts or performance material deemed inappropriately political, i.e. jokes about the Left or Right, respectively. But to think that the entertainment service for our G.I.'s would gain a rival out of sheer personal hubris is dumbfounding.

If her self-titled debut effort, the Janet Langhart Cohen Citizen Patriotic Tour, should prove viable (incidentally, generously funded by Clinton administration friend, Steven Spielberg), will we see other projects?

Perhaps the Janet Langhart Cohen Citizen Patriotic Blood Bank to compete with the Red Cross. Or would it be the Janet Langhart Cohen Citizen Patriotic Special Child Olympiad going head-to-head with the Special Olympics? The possibilities of what you can achieve with Hollywood funding and an ego of gargantuan proportions are truly endless.

I only hope that when Ms. Cohen begins to compile materials for the Janet Langhart Cohen Citizen Patriotic Anthology of Literature for College Freshmen, she will not omit the words of poet Andrew Lang, as he wrote "I marvel how men toil and fare, The weary business that they play! Their voyaging is vanity, And fairy gold is all their gain."

C.T. Rossi is the deputy director of Development for the Free Congress Foundation.

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