In its 243-year history, our country has produced some pretty remarkable political creatures, of every conceivable philosophical and social stripe. But the case of the late Roy Cohn, as profiled in Matt Tyrnauer’s panoramic new documentary, Where’s My Roy Cohn?, is arguably unique.
Depending on whom you talk to, the New York-based attorney and political consultant (1927-1986) was “beyond Machiavellian,” or “like a caged animal,” who “saw himself as a political puppeteer,” practicing “the paranoid style of politics” in his dealings with perceived enemies and victims. Very few commentators, in fact, have anything positive at all to say about the man who first made his reputation as a fierce ally and enabler of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist crusade in the U.S. Senate in the early 1950s. The televised hearings featured Cohn as a pit bull commie-baiter, browbeating writers, actors, and filmmakers for their political views.
The “Red Scare” put Cohn on the ultra-conservative map, but he didn’t stop there. According to director Tyrnauer (Studio 54; Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood), Cohn represented a considerable number of the 20th century’s greediest men in their predatory efforts to make money the old-fashioned way — by stealing it, or at least getting rich by bending the law.
For instance, Cohn had a hand in guiding the career of real estate developer Donald Trump, whose methods eventually began to resemble those of his counselor: always attack; never admit guilt or apologize; wield a combination favors and fear to achieve victory; manipulate the media; lie incessantly, to the point of permanently obscuring the truth; and perhaps most deplorably, to stir up public antagonism by blaming defenseless people for the crimes that he and his fellow plutocrats actually committed.
The filmmakers spend some time investigating how Mr. Decay Germ got that way. Notes one of the film’s talking heads: “For Roy, life was transactional.” Born in the Bronx to a family of Jewish bankers and manufacturers (his father was a judge), the young Cohn excelled in school, his way — at age 15 he reportedly made his first bribe, of a teacher. Cohn realized early on that he was gay, and, as “the definition of a self-hating Jew,” channeled his apparent shame of his homosexuality into law and politics. As a youthful Assistant U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, his 1951 persecution of accused “atomic spies” Julius and Ethel Rosenberg helped send the couple to the electric chair. That escapade put him in solid with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and McCarthy.
“I would do anything to get my client to win,” lawyer Cohn says on camera in period footage. In the notoriously corrupt New York of the 1950s and onward, he peddled “patriotism” for self-gain, interfered with the draft board in favor of his boyfriend David Shine, and hand-fed obliging press outlets by dictating copy to the Post and the Daily News. As a lawyer, he had an unfortunate knack for “subjecting everyone around him to potential criminal liability.” Always good copy for reporters, Cohn gained notoriety for being “totally ugly and totally charismatic at the same time.”
Cohn’s relationship with Trump dovetails suspiciously with the attorney’s work for such gangsters as John Gotti and Carmine Galante. Through the current president’s father Fred Trump, Cohn served as de facto consigliere to the Gambino and Genovese crime families. Later, he helped the “Very Stable Genius” fight a civil rights accusation by Black tenants alleging discrimination. His lessons — including the advice: “Attack, don’t settle, get off the issue, never apologize” — evidently stuck with Trump. As “a bridge between the legitimate and the illegitimate world,” Cohn helped his client build Trump Tower with unpaid, undocumented Polish immigrant laborers.
Among Cohn’s fawning admirers: Cardinal Francis Spellman, broadcast news person Barbara Walters, NYC Mayor Ed Koch, Presidents Nixon and Reagan, and conservative commentator William Buckley. All the worst people supported him (or were coerced to do so), and too many ordinary, hard-working Americans were vamped on by him and his cabal of rich lawbreakers.
Long before Tyrnauer’s exquisitely detailed documentary ends, we grow weary of Cohn, Trump, and everything about them. It’s enough to make you physically ill. But it’s better that we know the facts, isn’t it? See Where’s My Roy Cohn? and connect the dots, if you dare. The truth may very well set you free.