Roy Cohn destroyed the lives of thousands before he destroyed his own. He helped create Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt of the 1950s, and then spearheaded the “Lavender Scare” to drive LGBTQ people from public service, although he was himself gay.
He went on to defend mob bosses and become a political power broker who Nancy Reagan famously said helped elect her husband to the presidency. When he fell ill with HIV — and years before Ronald Reagan ever said the word AIDS in public, he and his wife helped get Cohn into an experimental treatment program at the NIH.
More than anyone else, he is also the man credited for teaching Donald Trump everything he knew about using people and situations to get yourself the desired outcome.
This week, a new documentary called Where’s My Roy Cohn? will hit the screens. The film’s title comes from the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump. According to those present, he said it when he wished that there was a “fixer” who could make his problems disappear.
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Roy Cohn was born in the Bronx to a judge active in Democratic Party politics, and was educated at Columbia University, where he graduated at 20 — and had to wait until he turned 21 to take the bar exam that made him a lawyer. His family connections landed him a job as an assistant US attorney in Manhattan, and quickly made a name for himself prosecuting defendants accused of being Soviet operatives.
Cohn was without peer at three things in his life. He was a master manipulator. He fought like a pit bull and never gave up until his enemy was destroyed. And he was a publicist extraordinaire.
He first stepped into the national spotlight as a prosecutor in the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who stood trial for attempting to sell atomic technology to the Soviets. Historians say that Julius’ conviction was almost certainly deserved. They fail to agree that Ethel was a co-conspirator. Both were executed.
Although it was illegal to do so, Cohn was consulted privately during the trial by the presiding judge. When asked if he regretted his role, Cohn is reported to have said he’d have thrown the electric chair switch himself.
At 24, he next took a seat next to Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy to purge the government of presumed Communist infiltrators. Photographs of their hearings often show Cohn whispering into McCarthy’s ear as the senator systematically destroyed reputations and lives with next to no evidence of their victims’ disloyalty.More From Metrosource
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The Great Pretender
At the time, Cohn fell smitten by a young well-heeled man named G. David Schine. When Schine was drafted, Cohn overstepped himself. He threatened hearings about the Army harboring Communists and homosexuals in the Army unless his crush got preferential treatment. The Army fought back, and their battle became the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. Those resulted in McCarthy’s censure by the Senate and his fall from power.
Together, Cohn and McCarthy fanned the flames of paranoia at home after the Soviet Union became an atomic power. Part of their crusade was to convince Americans that the US government had been compromised by homosexuals in their midst. In response to this perceived threat to national security, President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order to ban homosexuals from working in the federal government in 1953. That ban existed until President Obama signed the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in 2010.
Cohn turned to private practice after McCarthy’s disgrace, where he built a reputation representing a rogue’s gallery of New York clients. Among them: rumored Mafiosos Tony Salerno, Carmine Galante and John Gotti. But his success also put him at the top tier of NYC lawyers. He attracted a swath of celebrities, ranging from Studio 54 owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager to Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump.
Trump first turned to Cohn to find a way out of a Justice Department lawsuit that claimed his company violated the Fair Housing Act in deceiving African Americans who sought to rent his properties. Cohn had Trump countersue the government for $100 million and called the charges “irresponsible and baseless.” Ultimately, the case was settled out of court, and the countersuit failed.
Federal investigators charged Cohn with misconduct on three different occasions — including charges of witness tampering and perjury. Finally, with five weeks left to live, he was disbarred for misappropriation of a client’s funds, lying on a bar application and coercing a client to amend his will. He is said to have put a pen in a dying man’s hand and attempting to use it to sign a document naming himself as one of the prime beneficiaries.
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Last Dance, Last Chance
Another of Cohn’s protégés, Trump crony Roger Stone, has said that Cohn wasn’t gay. “He was a man who liked having sex with men,” he told journalist Jeffrey Toobin. “Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn’t discussed. He was interested in power and access.”
That power and influence, that access and avarice didn’t stop AIDS from killing him in 1986. Since his death, he’s been portrayed numerous times on stage and screen. The most famous of these? Tony Kushner’s brutal rendering of him in Angels in America. Cohn is depicted as a man haunted by Ethel Rosenberg’s ghost as he continues to assert that he’s afflicted by “liver cancer.”
On the one hand, it’s clear that karma caught up with Roy Cohn. He wanted no real friends, and died without them. He wanted his “liver cancer” lie to outlast him, and it didn’t. The whole world knows he died from AIDS complications. He never wanted to be known as homosexual, and now it often appears in anything attached to his name.
But with Donald Trump in the White House conducting business exactly the way Cohn would if he were alive himself to do it, who is having the last laugh here?
Cohn is the subject of director Matt Tyrnauer’s new documentary, Where’s My Roy Cohn? Here’s the trailer:
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Last modified: September 16, 2019