On meeting Roy Cohn, we are told, “you knew you were in the presence of evil.” This statement occurs within the first few minutes. The rest of Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary adds support to the proposition.
If you’ve ever found yourself wondering how American politics attained its current level of crazed amorality, Where’s My Roy Cohn? provides a few answers. The title comes from one of Cohn’s longterm associates, Donald J. Trump, when he complained about Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, having recused himself from the Mueller investigation.
Long before he met Trump, Cohn had established his credentials as one of the toughest, smartest and most unscrupulous lawyers in America. As a young prosecutor at the US Department of Justice in 1951 he was instrumental in the conviction and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. His next gig was as chief counsel assisting Senator Joseph McCarthy in the anti-communist trials of the 1950s, a role that conferred both celebrity and notoreity. In the following decade Cohn would turn his skills to defending organised crime bosses such as John Gotti, Tony Salerno and Carmine Galante.
In 1973, when Donald Trump was accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent properties to African Americans, Cohn took up the case and went on the attack, launching a countersuit. Trump would eventually settle out of court and declare the result a victory. It’s a pattern he has repeated many times, especially since he became President.
Cohn’s strategy was to deny everything, never apologise, never back down, and attack your accusers with maximum force. He was focused exclusively on winning, and would employ any tactic to achieve a result. Cohn had contempt for the law and for other human beings. He enjoyed playing the villain, being fuelled by the fear and hatred he inspired in his opponents.
In the course of this film we hear an astonishing recital of Cohn’s crimes, although nothing seemed to stick until the very end. In 1986 he was disbarred for unethical behaviour for trying to get his hands on a dying client’s money by getting him to sign an amendment to his will. Within a few weeks Cohn himself would be dead from AIDS-related illnesses.
Cohn is a man who defies understanding, but if we wanted to try, Tyrnauer gives us all the necessary information. We learn that Roy was the offspring of a loveless marriage. He grew up in a wealthy Jewish milieu, but seemed to resent his Jewishness. He was homosexual, but continually denied it in public, even being prepared to bait homosexuals in court. It’s ironic that his infatuation with another counsel, G. David Shine, helped bring down the McCarthy investigations after Cohn convinced the senator to go after the army. His motivation was to ensure that Shine, who had just been conscripted, was given light duties, but the hearings ended in farcical insult and innuendo.
Although Cohn was short and ugly, it was a kind of fascinating ugliness – the main features being a flat, prominent nose; the pale blue eyes with a deathly stare, and a permanent suntan.
Like other ugly but powerful men he was vain, and liked to surround himself with handsome young paramours. Despite his sinister reputation Cohn had plenty of high-profile friends who were willing to act as character witnesses for him, including journalist, Barbara Walters; author, Norman Mailer, and a who’s who of American high society. Absent from the list was Gore Vidal, whom we watch trading barbs with Cohn on a TV talk show.
When he wasn’t partying at the gay nightclubs, or on his boat, Cohn was mixing with leading tycoons and politicians. Although he was a registered Democrat he claimed to have played a big part in the election of Ronald Reagan, who remained a close friend. We see photographs of the Oval Office with Reagan, Cohn, and another of Cohn’s clients – Rupert Murdoch. The name of the game was to get Reagan to accept policies congenial to Murdoch’s media interests. In retrospect we can see this as laying the groundwork for the advent of Fox News in 1996.
The longer this documentary goes on the more appalling Cohn seems, even as his influence on public life grows. It’s like watching a horror movie in which some evil genius is gradually poisoning a country, sometimes directly, sometimes through the disciples he has created. One of those disciples, Roger Stone, is happy to speak freely about the man he regarded as a mentor. Since these interviews were filmed, Stone – the self-confessed “dirty trickster” – has been convicted on various charges, and is awaiting sentencing.
Cohn’s star pupil is still sitting in the White House while crimes stack up around him on a daily basis. The defence strategy Trump is using to stave off impeachment is straight from the Roy Cohn handbook: deny everything, spread confusion, go on the attack. The very reason Trump finds himself in this predicament is his Cohn-like focus on winning at all costs, even if it means extorting a foreign government to help him cheat in the 2020 elections.
What’s most alarming is the way the Roy Cohn method seems to have spread outwards from Trump and infected a large part of the Republican Party, who have lost all interest in quaint old topics such as truth and justice in the desperate scramble to cling to power. Meanwhile Fox News is spreading the Cohn gospel to all parts of America, and perhaps the world. Even here we can see that Scott Morrison’s preferred way of dealing with his ministers’ scandals is to deny they committed any offence. In the post-truth world winning is right and losing is wrong. Trump’s question: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” is now redundant. He’s everywhere.
Where’s My Roy Cohn?
Written & directed by Matt Tyrnauer
Starring Roy Cohn, Roger Stone, Joseph McCarthy, Donald Trump, Barbara Walters, Ken Auletta, Ann Roiphe, Steve Rubell, Sam Roberts
USA, rated PG, 97 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 7 December, 2019