From Brooklyn gang to the Oval Office: Meet negotiator extraordinaire Herb Cohen

Herbie Cohen learned his legendary negotiating skills as the leader of a Jewish gang on the streets of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

In his adulthood, he’s helped resolve major strikes and consulted for countless corporations and government agencies. He advised former United States president Jimmy Carter during the Iran hostage crisis and participated in the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, among other high-profile engagements.

Always with a story or a quirky aphorism on the tip of his tongue, Cohen has trained businesspeople, politicians and others to project power (even if they don’t have it), read their opponents and get what they want from them.

The son of Jewish immigrants, Cohen grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1930s and 1940s. His adventures as the leader of the Warriors — a Jewish gang that at times seemed like more of a social group — provided the perfect education for the life he would later build for himself.

It was the antics of Cohen and his friends, nicknamed Inky, Sheppo, Bucko, Who Ha, Ben the Worrier, Iron Lung, Gutter Rut, and Zeek the Greek aka the Mouthpiece (real name: Larry Zieger, aka Larry King, yes, that Larry King), that helped him develop powers of observation and hone the ability to perceive other people’s needs and perspectives. He could always devise a plan and talk his way into or out of any situation.

The stories of Herbie Cohen, now 89, and his childhood friends (including baseball legend Sandy Koufax) in Bensonhurst, and his escapades in the US Army, are the starting point of “The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World’s Greatest Negotiator,” a new biography of Cohen by his son, bestselling author Rich Cohen.

“I think a lot of it is just his nature,” Rich Cohen, 53, said of his father’s talents in a recent interview with The Times of Israel from his home in Connecticut. “He was always very clever about people, reading people and being able to step back and see the situation from above.”

More family memoir than pure biography, the book is chock full of the loquacious and humorous elder Cohen’s instructive anecdotes, negotiating tricks, and words of wisdom — all intended to achieve win-win outcomes where both sides in a negotiation come away feeling like they got a good deal.

Herbie Cohen shared these principles in his 1982 bestselling book, “You Can Negotiate Anything: How To Get What You Want.” Initially marketed as a business book, readers came to view it a self-help guide.

Herbie told his son that he wasn’t in favor of zero-sum deals because he wanted to be a good person.

“It’s because I want to be effective. If the other guy walks away feeling bad about what happened, the deal is going to fall apart and you’re going to end up with nothing,” Herbie said.

Herbie’s words of advice and pithy aphorisms — and how his son understands and interprets them — are at the core of the memoir.

Bernie (Who Ha) Horowitz, Herbie Cohen and Larry King (nee Zeiger) in their Brooklyn clubhouse circa 1948. (Courtesy of Rich Cohen)

“I have always cared about my dad’s aphorisms. We were raised on them. I thought about them a lot as I grew up. Sometimes I felt like the things he was saying were little coded messages for me that I’d think about forever to try to figure out what they meant,” Rich Cohen said.

One of Herbie’s best-known bits of advice has always been one of the hardest for him to follow himself — a prime illustration of how in some cases he taught his son not by example, but by counterexample.

Herbie would always advise clients and students to care but not too much; in other words, to know when to walk away from the negotiation table — or any situation for that matter. The only thing is that Herbie himself had a tough time doing that — especially when it had to do with his own life and family.

Herbie Cohen (right) leaving for patrol in Bad Kissingen, Germany circa 1953. (Courtesy of Rich Cohen)

Rich Cohen, who evidently inherited his engaging storytelling ability from his father, recounts several instances in which Herbie just could not drop it. In one case, he refused to settle a prolonged lawsuit despite all his best advisors and supporters urging him to do so. It cost him and his loved ones dearly.

“The experience changed my father in a profound way; he became addicted to the rush of battle, the feeling he was the little guy taking on an evil system,” Rich Cohen wrote.

“When he ran out of battles of his own, he began looking for those of other people. He became a freelance injustice fighter… Once Herbie engaged, he was impossible to disengage. The man simply would not quit. You went to him for sympathy and advice, but wound up in the crew of crazy captain Ahab.”

Covers of Herb Cohen’s two books: ‘You Can Negotiate Anything’ and “Negotiate This!’ (Amazon)

When the younger Cohen told his father about a professor who had treated him badly at Tulane University, Herbie Cohen complained to the administration — for years.

“He would get himself involved. It became about him, not you, to the point where the thing that happened at Tulane, he continued to be involved in that long after I graduated. It had nothing to do with me. I was out of it. When I found out it was still going on, I was shocked,” Cohen said.

And when Rich Cohen told Herbie that he wanted to be a writer and not go to graduate or law school after college, Herbie went ahead and applied for him anyway — without telling him. Herbie wanted his son to have something to fall back on if the writing thing didn’t work out.

“I received twenty-five rejections that spring, and one acceptance. When I complained about the humiliation, Herbie said, ‘I’ve done you a favor, kid. You want to be a writer? Well, the toughest thing a writer has to deal with is rejection. Learning to ignore it and move on. I’ve prepared you for the future,’” Cohen wrote.

Herbie Cohen (left) with sons Steven (center) and Rich (right) at home in Glencoe, Illinois, 1977. (Courtesy of Rich Cohen)

Herbie has appeared in a number of his son’s many books, but this is the first time that he is at the center of the narrative.

“I know that my mother, who died about eight years ago — which was incredibly traumatic for all of us — always wanted me to write a book about my father…Since my mother died, it’s been in my head that I should write a book about my father. The fact that he is still alive made me think it would be a fun thing for him, and I could also call him up and run things by him,” Rich Cohen said.

In the memoir, Cohen discusses how his father’s having grown up in a tight-knit Jewish New York neighborhood allowed him to be more comfortable in his own ethnic and religious skin than he himself was growing up in a decidedly non-Jewish community in Illinois. It also informed Herbie’s approach to life and dealing with other people.

“I never had the confidence he did to stand up and argue for something like he does and did,” Cohen said.

The author said it stung him when people referred to his father as “just a Jewish guy from New York teaching people how to haggle.”

Rich Cohen (Micah Cohen)

“It was antisemitic. His book is the opposite. When you read his book you realize he was talking about how everyone in a negotiation can come out ahead, everyone can get more, not less. About how giving in to people so that ultimately them doing well will result in your doing well. It’s about adding and lifting everybody up. It’s a very humane vision. Of course, it’s negotiation. But he had almost a religious message. His whole thing was about win-win. It was a new idea, and very positive,” Rich Cohen said.

So, does Herbie think that a win-win outcome could be achieved for the Israelis and Palestinians? According to his son, he does believe the intractable conflict can be solved.

‘The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World’s Greatest Negotiator’ by Rich Cohen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“He thinks every human conflict is solvable,” Rich Cohen said.

That being said, Herbie isn’t the right man for the job.

“He spoke about the conflict all the time. He was never involved [in any negotiations]. He did meet with different Israeli officials and politicians in the course of many trips to Israel. I’m not sure he would be the best negotiator for the conflict. One of his main rules is never negotiate for yourself, because you need detachment. You need to care, but not that much. When it comes to Israel, I would say, judging by his own philosophy, he is too emotionally involved and cares way too much,” Rich Cohen said.

Herbie Cohen’s son has learned countless lessons from his father about negotiation, but the most important lesson he has learned is about how to be a good parent.

“Your kids learn from everything you do — the things you want them to learn and the things you don’t want them to learn. The best thing you can do is to be an example as someone who is embracing life,” Rich Cohen said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *