Janet Langhart Cohen: Channeling the Lives of Anne and Emmett

Michael Sainte | 10/19/2011, 12:51 p.m.

In February 14, 1996, on Valentine's Day, she married former U.S. Senator William Cohen (R-Maine). They became mutual admirers in 1974 during an interview in Boston, when he was in Congress, but did not personally meet until years later when she was working for Black Entertainment Television (BET) in Washington, DC and her friend, former U.S. Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor, Andrew Young set up an interview for her. They remained friends and when they both became single again they started dating.

When Cohen first proposed, Langhart said she was concerned that his political career would be adversely affected by his marriage to a Black woman. William Cohen, a moderate Republican, was chosen to serve as President Bill Clinton's Secretary of Defense. Langhart is a Democrat and her life was getting ready to undergo an amazing transformation.

While her husband served as Secretary of Defense, she became known as "First Lady of the Pentagon." The same drive, tenacity and determination that had propelled her throughout her life and career, combined with her innate sense of humanity, elegance and graciousness were shining jewels in her new role. She embraced this opportunity to serve our country and most importantly she recognized that she could make a difference in the quality of life for those who served unselfishly in our Armed Forces.

She initiated several processes focused on the morale and well-being of military and civilian employees of the Defense Department, which included the Military Family Forum, the Pentagon Pops Concert Series and the Secretary of Defense Annual Holiday Tour (an entertainment revue. She was given the volunteer position as "First lady of the USO" and assisted in recruiting celebrities and civilians to work with the United Service Organizations.

In 1999, she founded the Citizen Patriot Organization (CPO), a non-profit committed to recognizing "those who serve, protect and defend the United States of America." The group periodically presents a CPO Award, which includes Jack Valenti, former long-term President of the Motion Picture Association of America, and Arizona Senator and former Presidential candidate John McClain among its recipients. The group has also organized a Homeland Defense Tour, which brought USO-like appreciation events to first responders at the September 11 attacks sites and other domestic locations and a Citizen Patriot Tour to military locations overseas.

Langhart unabashedly confided that she doesn't think of herself as a writer, although in 2004 she authored a memoir (with Alexander Kopelman), "My Life in Two Americas; From Rage to Reason" and in 2007 with her husband, "Love in Black and White: A Memoir of Race, Religion and Romance." And, now her play, "Anne and Emmett."

Langhart said the spark from which the play originated was set off by remarks made to her by a friend at a cocktail party (it brought to mind the famous Eartha Kitt and Ladybird Johnson incident at the White House during the Viet Nam War). She was telling her friend about her first memoir, which dealt with the themes of race, discrimination and cultural and social isolation from her perspective as an American of multiracial (though clearly defined as Black) heritage. The friend urged her to forego the project as "...not being worthy of any further social discourse."