New Deal figure's bio tells much
about era, little about the man
Benjamin V. Cohen: Architect of the New Deal by William Lasser. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. 338 pp. $35.
by Aaron Leibel
This is an academic biography (the author is a political scientist at Clemson University) with all the strengths and weaknesses that such writing entails.
On the positive side, we learn much about the 1930s and '40s -- at least from a Washington perspective. Benjamin Cohen was a-behind-the-scenes New Deal figure who helped draft some of the most important legislation of that era, including the Securities Act of 1933, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Public Utilities Holding Company Act of 1935.
As an adviser and speechwriter, often in conjunction with another White House counsel, his friend Thomas Corcoran, Cohen also was involved in almost all the controversies that plagued the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Cohen's fingerprints are visible on the attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court, the internment of Japanese during World War II and the setting up of the United Nations after the war.
His most important contribution, William Lasser writes, came in 1940 when he helped get beleaguered Britain 50 American destroyers before America's entry into the war. There were legal and political barriers to the deal, which Prime Minister Winston Churchill claimed at the time was indispensable to the British effort to fend off the Nazis. Cohen found a way around them.
The attorney also worked to help the Zionists at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and apparently had some impact, through Max Lowenthal, on gaining American recognition of the Jewish state in 1948.
Lowenthal, a legal adviser to the White House on the Palestinian issue, whose crucial role in gaining American recognition of Israel has only recently been discovered, writes Lasser, "was in close contact with Cohen throughout 1947 and 1948, and relied heavily on Cohen's advice. Moreover, many of the ideas and arguments that Lowenthal put forward in his legal briefs were supplied by Cohen."
Those years were some of the most interesting in the history of the American republic, and Lasser provides much background, putting the goings-on into perspective and explaining the importance of the legislation that Cohen was crafting.
The reader meets Cohen's acquaintances, colleagues and mentors -- Corcoran, Felix Frankurter, Harold Ickes, Louis Brandeis.
But there is a downside -- the reader comes away from the book knowing little about Cohen as a person, or as a Jew. He grew up in Muncie, Ind., where he was born in 1894. His grandparents on his mother's side kept a kosher house; his mother didn't and later in life she became a Christian Scientist -- without cutting her ties to Judaism.
"From this melange, Cohen seems to have picked up a smattering of Hebrew and a passing acquaintance with Jewish holidays and customs," writes Lasser. "He more strongly identified with being an American, and came to believe that 'the only thing that distinguished him and his family' from their neighbors was religion."
Insofar as Cohen the man, we learn he was a shy person, who had difficulties developing relationships with women. He apparently was infatuated with a woman named Jane Harris for much of his life. When her husband died, Cohen asked her to marry him, but she turned him down.
Cohen also suffered from periodic bouts of depression.
That's about it. As I said, not much about Cohen the person.
Assessing Cohen's contribution to modern American life is difficult, Lasser admits. With the possible exception of the Destroyers for Bases Agreement with Britain in 1940, his influence was not decisive, the author concludes.
Nonetheless, "his constant willingness to provide advice to others in Washington on a wide range of legal and policy issues, his minor corrections and small suggestions, improved countless laws and solidified innumerable legal arguments. These contributions can never be measured, but they were real, and their cumulative impact was considerable."
Not a bad epitaph for a relatively minor government official.
This story was published in the WashingtonJewishWeek
on: Thursday, August 15, 2002