“Roy, We Hardly Knew Ye”:
James J. O'Meara
Roy Cohn & the Secret History of America
Where’s My Roy Cohn?
Directed by Matt Tyrnauer
Interviews and archival footage of Ken Auletta, Roy M. Cohn, Joseph McCarthy, Anne Roiphe, Steve Rubell, Roger Stone, Donald Trump, & Barbara Walters
“I bring out the worst in my enemies and that’s how I get them to defeat themselves.” — Roy Cohn
Finding myself in Stars Hollow for a few days, I decided to sample that typical attraction of such places, the plucky little “independent” cinema. There I settled in with the usual audience – one-third crunchy students from the local community college, two-thirds retirees whose “social conscience” hasn’t yet been overtaken by worries about monthly checks and hip replacements – to take in what the posters outside assured me was “Matt Tyrnauer’s best film to date”; since the name was unknown to me, I could only hope for the best.
As a documentary film, this is no Maysles Brothers or Frederick Wiseman classic; not even a Bowling for Columbine. Tyrnauer’s film is a competent production; the mixture of archival footage and fresh interviews is well edited into a brisk 97 minutes that hits all the necessary points along the way: Bronx birth (his mother was “the ugliest girl in the Bronx” and was married off to daddy Cohn in exchange for a judgeship, which seems to have set the tone for his life), legal prodigy, McCarthy hearings, return to New York to become a top shyster and fixer (a macher, in his people’s tongue), mob consigliere, mentor to young Donald Trump, power behind the Reagan White House; all the while leading an increasingly decadent club-hopping Studio 54 lifestyle and ultimately dying from AIDS, without ever admitting to being a homosexual.
The music is serviceable, with the requisite dramatic, Jaws-like ostinato whenever someone evil – i.e., a Republican – appears, although the use of Ravel’s Bolero during the summing up is an odd use of what is already a cliché.
The archival footage from the ‘70s was a special treat for your reviewer, as it provided a warm bath of nostalgia for the days of Morley Safer and Mike Wallace on the original 60 Minutes, along with Tom Snyder’s bizarre Tomorrow interview show and Gore Vidal, resplendent in full ‘70s plumage, camping it up with Roy on some other show. Barbara Walters shows up only as a non-talking head, out on the town as Roy’s beard, and the voiceover tells us she did grow testy about his habit of saying they would marry “as soon as we’re sixty.” It was like the early, best years of Saturday Night Live, with the satire replaced with verismo.
There’s a couple of clips of J. Edgar Hoover denouncing Communism – how unhip! If only Bernie Sanders were around to set him straight – and a brief, silent clip of Cardinal Spellman, so we get three of the four examples I like to give of the secret homos who made America great.
None of this would come as any news to someone – like the retirees and myself – who lived through most of those years, or who have read some American history; or issues of The Nation, like the students (although I suspect the later, Studio 54 Cohn was news to them).
So if Tyrnauer has nothing to add, in content or technique, why this film? The answer, as to most questions today, is (cue dramatic music): Trump. From the title – supposedly uttered by Trump when hearing of yet another investigation opening up – to the detailing of Cohn’s personal and financial dealings with Trump, we are supposed to believe that little Roy Cohn is the key to post-war American history; that Trump’s present moment is merely the final outcome of what Senator McCarthy himself might have called “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man.”
Stated so baldly, it does seem a little, well, nutty. But such is the nature of Trump Derangement Syndrome.
Moreover, beyond the desperate search for someone, anyone, to blame for Trump – other than Hillary herself – this is all simply another case of the standard progressive trope of projection: Blame your opponent for what you are doing.
What is Cohn supposed to have done to corrupt the Republic? First, with McCarthy, he invented, well, McCarthyism, defined here as issuing wild charges, without any evidence, to smear and destroy political opponents, and to stoke the flames of “anti-Russian paranoia.” Leaving aside the question of whether McCarthy was, in fact, mostly right, one might well respond with a single word: RussiaGate. Indeed, Roger Stone shows up, in new interviews as well as archival footage, having apparently worked with Cohn, with no hint of the irony of Stone being right now subject to government persecution.
Next, Cohn apparently pioneered the sinister legal strategy of refusing to admit guilt, and instead vigorously defending oneself against the government charges. As all progressives know, The Government is always right. He taught this strategy to Trump, and that’s why Trump refuses to just resign when faced with Joy Behar’s accusations.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Cohn’s cozy ties to the now-legacy media created “the situation we now have where FOX News is in the White House.” As if CNN weren’t the Clinton News Network, and MSNBC wasn’t a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic National Committee.
Indeed, passed over in this potted survey of history is a little period known as the Clinton years, where something called “the politics of personal destruction” was enshrined, its chief theoretician being one James Carville, a slimy little snake-headed prick who could give Cohn a run for his money in the “beat by the ugly stick” competition.
As always with the Left, one wonders, is this the best they can do, or are they just trolling us? It’s hard to believe that the seniors in attendance were that senile, or the students that illiterate, not to rise up in revolt from being fed this weak beer. How ironic that Gore Vidal should show up, only to provide some bitchy repartee with Cohn; a reading of Vidal’s America novel series – perhaps only the first volume, Burr – would soon relieve them of the Present Year myopia that all this is some kind of deviation from “our traditions” which can in turn explain the Trump anomaly.
Actually, it’s business as usual; the progs are just butthurt that Trump, like Cohn, figured out how to grab the megaphone and use it to his – and our – advantage.
Moreover, the problem with using Cohn as the fall guy – like Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon – is that the two things everyone knows about him are that he was a Jew and a homosexual, characteristics that, among the Woke, are like carrying letters of transit signed by De Gaulle in Casablanca. The response is to color him as a “self-hating Jew” (the phrase is actually used) and, I suppose, a “self-hating homosexual.”
Indeed, the footage of the Army-McCarthy hearings, essential to establishing Cohn’s evil, rather blew up in the filmmaker’s face; although I do like his idea that it was the “first reality TV series.” There was a palpable stiffening in the atmos’ of the theater as the Democratic senators peppered Cohn with questions like, “Come now, we all have friends we loooove, don’t we, Mr. Cohn?” and sneered about “fairies” and “pixie dust.” Wait a minute, who are the Good Guys here?
I also wondered how the audience was processing Cohn’s frequent assertions that “I’m a non-conformist” and “I hate the establishment; I want to destroy it.” Wait a minute, those are our lines!
Cohn, of course, eventually died from AIDS, and we see him denying, right to the end, that he was a homosexual, that he had AIDS, or that he was dying; I suppose he thought denying he would ever die would be going too far, even for Roy Cohn. And again, the film and the audience seem momentarily at sea: Is this one final lie, the Biggest Lie yet, or does Cohn sound like thousands of others at the start of the epidemic, who are now retconned as martyrs or saints?
One interviewee goes so far as to speculate that if Cohn had come out of the closet about it all, he would have become a Hero; I suppose for raising consciousness about the epidemic in its earliest stages. It seems a bit much, but symptomatic of the conflicting narratives here; and the idea of a world-renowned Roy Cohn Institute of AIDS Research to stick in the craw of liberals for time to come is delightful.
History, it seems, is more complicated than an editorial in The Nation or a class in “wokeness” would lead you to believe.
All of which is not to say that Roy Cohn was beyond legitimate criticism. Indeed, a case against Cohn could easily be mounted from the Right. Cohn was a one-man wrecking crew from the point of view of what today are called Optics; a kind of Richard Spencer avant le lettre.
It wasn’t enough, for example, to convict Julius Rosenberg of espionage; he had to demand Ethel get the chair as well, to pressure Julius into confessing; all he got was a reputation as a bloodthirsty monster (“I’d pull the switch myself,” he said toward the end of his life). The film never even raises the question of guilt, just lets the optics leave the impression that of course both were innocent.
McCarthy is quoted as saying that he never saw Cohn acting irrationally until he met the Jewish but remarkably Nordic-looking G. David Shine. Cohn’s man-crush (a sexual relation has never been proved) directly led to the Army-McCarthy hearings, and McCarthy’s downfall.
His subsequent career as a New York shyster for hire and mob attorney is disreputable, while his paradoxically public private life of sybaritic excess has little to recommend it today.
Roy Cohn was certainly a monster, a man who cheerfully admitted in interviews to having no conscience or human emotions – although, being Roy Cohn, that would be just the sort of thing he’d lie about, if he thought it would scare you. Whether he was born that way, or was warped by his parents, or jettisoned all that useless stuff himself to further his career, hardly matters.
He was a sociopath – a dead-eyed shark, if you will – and that proved to be excellent material to create a great lawyer: from graduating from Columbia Law School at 20 – too young to take the bar exam – to the time when, being prosecuted for securities fraud, his defense lawyer suffered a heart attack and Cohn himself jumped up and delivered his own, spontaneous, seven-hour-long defense summation – and won.
And yet . . . someone in the film calls him “ugly, yet somehow attractive.” His sheer not-giving-any-fucks personality generated a weird kind of charisma. Even Tyrnauer starts right off with an interviewer asking Cohn about Milton’s Satan; another soggy cliché, but inevitable. To continue the thought, is he Ahab or Moby Dick?
Cohn was a deeply Evil man, and his career on – or through – the Right is less a matter of limp liberal assertions that “of course, all Right-wingers are evil” than of what Flannery O’Conner said about Southern Gothic: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers, particularly, have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”
On a more “positive” note, a trope that Tyrnauer fails to follow up on, or even notice, is that Cohn’s strategy of never admitting guilt, of relentlessly attacking until victory, is a twisted kind of “positive thinking” that Trump had already learned from Norman Vincent Peale, and probably recognized in Cohn rather than Cohn “mentoring” Trump in brazening out difficulties; several interviewees remark that Cohn seemed to base his career on some unshakable self-image that kept him going forward relentlessly, where others might have just slunk away in shame.
Another Trump-related trope Tyrnauer fails to follow up, or perhaps notice, is Cohn’s remarkable collection of . . . stuffed frogs. Once more, we have to ask: Was Roy Cohn a dry run for the “Alt Right”? Will history, after sufficient time, draw a bright line from Cohn to, say, Richard Spencer?
Ultimately, reflecting on Roy Cohn, one thinks of Hunter S. Thompson’s valediction for his own 300-pound Samoan attorney:
There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.
 For more on Stars Hollow and other places on the SJW psychogeographical circuit, see my “The Gilmore Girls Occupy Wall St.,” reprinted in The Homo & the Negro: Masculinist Meditations on Politics and Popular Culture, ed. Greg Johnson; Second, Embiggened Edition (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2017).
 Why no Whittaker Chambers? I suppose they were already overloaded on the ‘50s, and perhaps no one would have recognized him anyway.
 “It is curious how Hamilton should have attached so securely to me the unlikely epithet ‘embryo-Caesar.’ I suspect that when Hamilton looked at me he saw, in some magical way, himself reflected. And so if one is an embryo-Caesar, accuse the looking-glass or that high treason and divert thereby the wrath of the plebes.” — Gore Vidal, Burr: A Novel (New York: Random House, 1973). “Leave the mirror and change your face” — Neville Goddard, Your Faith Is Your Fortune (1941).
 One of the few books allowed to make the pro-McCarthy case is M. Stanton Evans, Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies, by M. Stanton Evans (Ashland, Or.: Crown, 2007); a breezier account is found in Ann Coulter’s Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003).
 Spencer J. Quinn here at Counter-Currents has already addressed the issue of Trump’s “racist” rental practices in “Going to Bat for Trump: Refuting Five Common Slurs.” Quinn says that “Mr. Trump was forced to blaze and continue to deny, . . . and . . . eventually settled out of court without an admission of guilt. But that [isn’t] convincing, given the plethora of evidence. Second, Mr. Trump only made matters worse by retaining one Roy Cohn to represent him in court. For those of you who remember, Cohn, brilliant as he was, was also one of the sleazier attorneys in New York at the time.” But his alternate strategy for today’s defenders of Trump – “We should simply reframe the discussion and argue that those were Mr. Trump’s properties and he has a right to determine who rents there for whatever reason he wants. I don’t care what the stupid Civil Rights Act says. America is about freedom, no? Just as one has the right to be picky about who come into one’s home, one also has a right to be picky about whom one does business with” – is rather Cohnesque in its chutzpah.
 Needless to say, the most frequent criticism made of Cohn is . . . hypocrisy.
 Chomsky used to mock those who would focus on some point in history – the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, or 9/11 – and intone “here is where America lost its innocence.” America, Chomsky would point out, was never innocent
 We see Cohn asked pretty directly on a couple of occasions, and his shysterish response is to reply that “a homosexual isn’t a man who has sex with men, it’s someone who can’t get a waiver from the building commission,” thus changing the subject from homos to beta males, while never answering the question yes or no. Ironically, Cohn – if (always a big if) we take him seriously here – would seem to agree with Gore Vidal that there are no homosexuals, but only homosexual acts; Vidal also deplored the weakling stereotype, and projected a manliness that appealed to both men and women. Both men would be horrified by what passes under the LGBQT trademark these days.
 But I suppose today they’d just demand it be renamed or torn down.
 For an alternative view of the Welch-McCarthy confrontation (“Have you at last no decency?”), see Evans, op. cit. According to Wikipedia, “Schine made a cameo appearance as himself on a 1968 episode of Batman. Schine was executive producer of the 1971 film The French Connection, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture. In 1977 he produced That’s Action!. Shortly afterwards, Schine was involved with music by The DeFranco Family that achieved Billboard gold and platinum and Cash Box No. 1. Schine’s company, Schine Music, also provided songs to Lou Rawls and Bobby Sherman, among others. A musician himself, Schine had music he composed published. He once conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra in place of Arthur Fiedler at a concert celebrating his Harvard University 25th reunion in a performance of Sibelius’ Karelia Suite.”
 Tyrnauer milks any meeting between Cohn and someone like Trump or Ed Koch for maximum guilt by association (i.e., “McCarthyism”), but other than the all-too-familiar Andy Warhol, passes over in silence footage of Cohn with Steve Rubell of Studio 54 fame, or Halston; for more on Halston and the era, see my “From Ultrasuede to Limelight: Aryan Entrepreneurs in the Dark Age, Part 1: Halston,” reprinted in Green Nazis in Space! New Essays on Literature, Art, & Culture; ed.by Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2015).
 Earlier biographies have tried to blame his belittling mother, while Tyrnauer blames her for making him the center of adoring attention; who knows?
 For more on Trump and positive thinking, see “The Secret of Trump’s A Peale,” and other essays collected in Magick for Housewives: Essays on Alt-Gurus (Melbourne, Victoria: Manticore, 2018).
 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (New York: Random House, 1971).
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What mitigates against the diagnosis of Cohn as a sociopath is that he seemed to be extremely loyal to those with whom he developed a bond. What’s obvious is that Cohn enjoyed combat and needed an enemy in order to make his life make sense. A Jew like Cohn would have been at home among the sicarrii and would, no doubt, been among those to stood a Masada. It appears no biography of Cohn has yet been written, which causes me to wonder about his status among the Jews because he committed the ultimate sin in seeing to it that the Jewish Communist Rosenbergs paid the ultimate price for their actions.
Yes, I should have mentioned that the film does make much of Cohn’s absolute loyalty to anyone he considered a friend. Given that Cohn himself admits to having no emotions, I assume he took this as a quid pro quo kind of transaction, like Hannibal Lechter, but real none the less.
Actually, there are two books, Citizen Cohn, by Nicholas von Hoffman (lefty, he was fired from 60 Minutes’ Point Counterpoint during Watergate when he called Nixon “a dead mouse on the kitchen floor”), and “The Autobiography of Roy Cohn,” actually a compilation of interviews with fellow macher Sidney Zion, both from around his death in 1988. Nothing more recent, though. Of course, any book on McCarthy or the Rosenbergs will have lots on Cohn, usually quite slanted.
Thanks for the references. Neither turned up in my search for ‘biography roy cohn’.
“Needless to say, the most frequent criticism made of Cohn is . . . hypocrisy.”
La Rochefoucauld remarked that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. This leads to the observation that at least the hypocrite recognizes what virtue is. The fashion of the present day is to prefer unapologetic sinning over hypocrisy.
Perhaps a commemorative Roy Cohen Pepe meme is in order, surrounded by his beloved stuffed frogs.
The film sounds interesting, even if it has a prog slant.
Very informative. In what sense was Cohn evil, and how is he like the alt right.
The film never deigns to mention the alt Right, but the mutual loathing of the Left and Cohn seems much like that of the Left and the alt Right. His disdain for the establishment and its niceties, his willingness to be on the far side of “respectable” opinion, his mastery of the media, prefigure alt Right themes. It was a much smaller media world, so Cohn was able to gain a great deal of control over his message, however unpopular, rather than being censored or deplatformed (until he was finally disbarred). On the negative, his disdain and self-importance also led to optic disasters, just like the alt Right. And then there’s the frogs.
If Spencer was as smart as Cohn, either he never would have planned a Charlottesville, or else he would have made sure the fix was in with the local govt and police. Failing all that, Spencer would have made sure no one went to prison; murder? Fuggeddaboutit! Cohn got no less than John Gotti bargained down from murder one to “attempted manslaughter,” two years max.
Thank you. But Cohn of course had certain advantages of birth which Spencer lacks.
“The music is serviceable, with the requisite dramatic, Jaws-like ostinato whenever someone evil – i.e., a Republican – appears…”
At the same time, do they also use grainy, black & white images of the villainous Republicans? I love when they do that.
How did he retain so much power/influence to the very end? Thirty years after Joe drank himself to death. And they must have had an even bigger grudge against Cohn because of the Rosenberg executions.
“It wasn’t enough, for example, to convict Julius Rosenberg of espionage; he had to demand Ethel get the chair as well, …” So what? She totally deserved it.
Though a crook and a sleaze, I admire Cohn for defending McCarthy until the day Cohn died, something that brought him endless grief in liberal NYC.
Most Jews would have simply thrown the good Senator under the bus, claiming “Oy vey, I was young and impressionable and didn’t know the GOP was so evil, etc.”.
Has anyone here seen the movie Citizen Cohn? HBO produced it in the early 90s.
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