Roy Cohn Counseled America’s Most Self-Serving Politicians, Even After Death

Good friends Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn during the '50s.
Good friends Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn during the '50s. (c) 2018 SUNDANCE INSTITUTE

Where's My Roy Cohn?

Directed by Matt Tyrnauer. Opens Friday, October 18, at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cine.

How would Roy Cohn react if he knew that one of his greatest claims to posthumous fame would come as a character in Tony Kushner's award-winning play Angels in America? Would the man who never shied away from a television camera still believe there's no such thing as bad publicity, or would he be shocked and enraged by the depiction of his battle with AIDS (which led to his death in 1986) and his homosexuality, which he always denied?

Angels in America isn't mentioned in Matt Tyrnauer's Where's My Roy Cohn?, but it's a minor omission. His theatrical afterlife aside, the film is a thorough, informative portrait of one of the twentieth century's most repellent political footnotes. It's a story about political events both distant (the Red Scare and the McCarthy era) and relatively recent (the sexual politics of the '70s and '80s), and the rise of a certain carrot-hued New York real estate con man figures prominently as well. If you're interested in postwar history, you won't find a better or more concise account of Cohn's power and influence in American politics.

It's a strange story spanning several decades and historic moments, with Cohn lurking in the sidelines as a malevolent force. He was born into a well-off family used to exerting influence: His mother was considered a less than desirable matrimonial partner, but her family promised a prominent attorney that if married her, he'd be named a judge. He did and was. Cohn first attracted attention, just out of law school, as one of the more aggressive prosecutors in the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy case. Despite flawed judgments and questionable decisions, the Rosenbergs were executed; Cohn bragged about his role in their sentencing for the rest of his life.

Moving up the political ladder, a young Cohn was hired as counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy and became a key player in one of the strangest episodes of American history, the Wisconsin senator's 1954 attempt to take on the U.S. Army with vague accusations of subversion. Cohn had developed a friendship (some say a romance) with fellow anti-Communist G. David Schine, heir to a hotel chain. When Schine was drafted into the army, Cohn badgered military commanders to give his friend special treatment and light duty. When these requests were ignored, Cohn convinced McCarthy to open an investigation of the military establishment. The resulting hearings were a grand political spectacle, a media train wreck of threats and innuendo, with rumors of Cohn's sexuality surreptitiously coming to light. (For a deeper look at the Army-McCarthy clash, see Emile de Antonio's Point of Order, one of the greatest political films ever made.)

Cohn was, by almost all accounts, a loathsome human being — one associate recalls that when you saw him, "You knew you were in the presence of evil" — but neither his personality nor his dubious ethics prevented him from rising in society. He was a frequent presence in the gossip columns, and briefly engaged to Barbara Walters. He rose in political circles as well. According to the almost equally odious Roger Stone, who worked in the same law firm, Cohn's manipulations were responsible for the 1980 nomination of Ronald Reagan and also helped discredit the vice-presidential bids of Thomas Eagleton in 1972 and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.

It was during the Reagan era that the man whose motto was "Never admit you're wrong; Never apologize," fell from grace as rapidly as he had risen. He was disbarred for stealing from clients and coercing a dying and barely conscious man to appoint him as estate executor. His friends — many of whom claim that they always knew he was corrupt — turned away and his career crumbled.

If not for his second life in Kushner's play, Cohn's death might have pushed him into the shadows of American history. Why, then, is his story worth hearing more than 30 years later? One compelling reason, documented in Tyrnauer's film, is the company he kept.

In 1973, Cohn acquired a new client who would become one of his closest friends. That client would also eventually become President of the United States. Donald Trump, along with his father, had been accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent apartments to black applicants. Under Cohn's advice Trump neither apologized nor denied but reached an out-of-court settlement and claimed it was a victory. Donald Trump regarded Cohn as a mentor and, despite claiming to have broken ties with him in the '80s, still felt his influence decades later. Just two months into his term, irritated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the investigation of Russian election-meddling, he allegedly asked his staff, "Where's my Roy Cohn?"

One of the many virtues of Tyrnauer's carefully selected historical footage (which includes the only color images I've ever seen of the Rosenbergs and McCarthy) is that we see Cohn's flaws and foibles firsthand. For all of his gifts for lying and obfuscation, he's revealed as a remarkably self-aware monster. In a taped interview, he's asked to name his flaws and quickly admits to "a total failure to sympathize with the emotional element in life." Tyrnauer's film is a skillful summary of the flaws and the man, as well as of the times he influenced and the trouble he raised. It ends with a strong, cautionary message about the reckless and arrogant pursuit of power. Now whom do you suppose that warning is about?

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