David L. Cohen is a large, genial man who never stops working. He has long been famous for his ability to think fast and keep going, nonstop, around the clock. His mind and energy make him someone most people want to please, and many people are a little afraid of. Cohen is now executive vice president of Comcast, and when people in or out of the company describe his role, it sounds much like his job as chief of staff under mayor Ed Rendell, as Cohen was for five and a half years through the ’90s. It was a time when City Hall had to come up with some answers, when Philadelphia was in dire financial straits, and Cohen didn’t bother sleeping much. He’s now Brian Roberts’s consigliere, the guy next to the guy, the one who, to a large extent, makes things go as the nation’s biggest cable company tries to get even bigger. The guy who pulls the levers behind the scenes. It sounds familiar.
But a lot has changed for David L. Cohen, because Comcast isn’t the half of it. Consider:
On a recent fall day, Cohen took the 7 a.m. Acela from New York back to Philly after attending former Penn president Judy Rodin’s 65th birthday party the night before, at Dizzy’s Club, where Wynton Marsalis blew happy birthday on his trumpet and Cohen quaffed Diet Cokes and chatted with Michael Bloomberg, Alan Greenspan and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. On the train home, he attacked paperwork — Cohen always has a mountain of paperwork — and swept through the Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Inquirer and the Legal Intelligencer.
We met at his office on the 52nd floor of the Comcast Center a little before 11, when he was free of early legal meetings. He’d had a Diet Coke or two but hadn’t eaten yet. I watched him talk on the phone about a panel he would be on at the Jewish Federation the following week, and whip through e-mails (he gets some 400 a day, and works through them all, because there will be 400 coming the next day and because he actually believes he should answer them), and critique a Comcast underling’s second draft of an in-house presentation on “sustainability strategy,” and give a speech at a Trial Lawyers Association lunch urging them to contribute to newly coined Democrat Arlen Specter’s Senate reelection (and, for the right-sized check, get to meet President Obama, coming to town on the 15th to stump for Arlen; Cohen is chairing the fund-raiser), and tape a video in Comcast’s in-house studio urging employees to give to United Way, and answer more e-mails, and slip out into the hall a couple of times to talk in a furtive, important-looking huddle with Brian Roberts for a few minutes.
Now, just before we drive to West Philly for a meeting with the Penn Med board of trustees, which he chairs, Cohen whips through more e-mails. I decide against a quick bathroom break — I’m not sure it fits his schedule, which so far still hasn’t included any food for him. It’s 2 p.m.
Cohen smiles impishly. “It’s really kind of a slow day for me,” he says.