The great work be­gins

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - PHILIP MARTIN pmartin@arkansason­ Read more at www.blood­dirtan­

“A man who loves peo­ple, loves an­i­mals. He once jumped into a river to save a dog … He does the work of any five lawyers.”

—Tom Bolan, Roy Cohn’s

law part­ner, tes­ti­fy­ing at Cohn’s dis­bar­ment hear­ings “I don’t kid my­self about Roy. He was no Boy Scout. He once told me that he’d spent more than two-thirds of his adult life un­der in­dict­ment on one charge or an­other.” —Don­ald Trump, The Art of the Deal

Roy Cohn was a Demo­crat, though he’s mostly known for his as­so­ci­a­tions with Repub­li­cans like Joseph McCarthy and Ron­ald Rea­gan and the cur­rent Amer­i­can pres­i­dent (though when Don­ald Trump was Cohn’s acolyte he was some­times a Demo­crat too). It doesn’t mat­ter what they call you, Cohn might have said, only that they call you, only that you col­o­nize their thoughts.

Cohn fas­ci­nated me. When he died on Aug. 2, 1986, I felt cheated, in the same way as when Andy Warhol died. I didn’t think of them as mor­tal.

He was a plague vic­tim, though he de­nied it to the end. Liver can­cer, he said. He went on 60 Min­utes in March of 1986 and, when Mike Wal­lace asked, lied: “I’ll tell you cat­e­gor­i­cally, I do not have AIDS.”

Sure, he ac­knowl­edged the ru­mors. The ru­mors went way back. “It’s a cinch, Mike,” Cohn said. “Take this set of facts: bach­e­lor, unmarried, mid­dle-aged—well, young mid­dle-aged. The sto­ries go back to the [McCarthy] days.”

Not many peo­ple are like Roy Cohn. It’s sur­pris­ing that some as­pire to be like him. He was one of the most re­viled Amer­i­cans of the 20th cen­tury. But he was one of the most pow­er­ful too, and maybe he was right, maybe the uni­verse is un­reg­u­lated by moral in­tel­li­gence, just the vac­uum in which we fleet­ingly frolic. Maybe there is no glory greater than in­spir­ing the envy of our lessers.

It’s tempt­ing to think of Cohn as a lit­er­ary char­ac­ter, for that’s what Tony Kush­ner made of him in his re­mark­able play Angels in Amer­ica.

“You come to room 1013 over at the hos­pi­tal, I’ll show you Amer­ica,” one char­ac­ter tells an­other. “Ter­mi­nal, crazy and mean.”

Cohn is the man in Room 1013. Or rather, he’s “the polestar of hu­man evil, he’s like the worst hu­man be­ing who ever lived, he isn’t hu­man even, he’s …” The ac­tor’s voice trails off. There are no words.

In the scene be­fore, we’d heard from Kush­ner’s Cohn, ad­vis­ing a young Mor­mon hus­band he’d like to se­duce: “Love; that’s a trap. Re­spon­si­bil­ity; that’s a trap too. Like a fa­ther to a son I tell you this: Life is full of hor­ror; no­body es­capes, no­body; save your­self. What­ever pulls on you, what­ever needs from you, threat­ens you. Don’t be afraid; peo­ple are so afraid; don’t be afraid to live in the raw wind, naked, alone…. Learn at least this: What you are ca­pa­ble of. Let noth­ing stand in your way.”

It’s a great and ter­ri­ble speech, based on Cohn’s own words. The devil al­ways gets the best lines.

Cohn framed the guilty Julius and Ethel Rosen­berg in 1951; he bragged in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy that he con­vinced Judge Irv­ing Kauf­man to im­pose the death penalty (if true, he acted un­eth­i­cally). He beat out Robert Kennedy to be­come Tail­gun­ner Joe’s chief coun­sel and col­lab­o­rated in cook­ing up cam­paigns against “egg-suck­ing phony lib­er­als” and “com­mu­nists and queers.” The Army-McCarthy hear­ing made the young lawyer a house­hold name.

Cohn’s child­hood was bizarre. His fa­ther—a New York State Supreme Court jus­tice—was gen­tle but dis­tant. His mother Dora was pos­ses­sive and mad. In 1953 at the Passover Seder the Cohns tra­di­tion­ally held for fam­ily and friends, Cohn re­turned home from the McCarthy hear­ings. As the youngest per­son at the ta­ble, if fell to him to read the tra­di­tional ques­tion from the Hag­gadah: “Why is this night dif­fer­ent from all oth­ers?”

“Be­cause the maid died in the pantry,” Dora ir­ri­ta­bly an­swered. Be­fore her guests ar­rived she’d or­dered the body re­moved from the kitchen to the ser­vants’ quar­ters to await the coro­ner.

Cohn lived with his mother un­til she died in 1967, and up un­til that time he re­mained clos­eted. Af­ter her death he moved to Man­hat­tan and lived flam­boy­antly. His second act was as a power bro­ker and king maker, a fixer who in­gra­ti­ated him­self with the Demo­cratic power struc­ture in New York City.

Po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive Roger Stone claims that dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign of 1980, Cohn bribed an in­flu­en­tial lawyer in or­der to se­cure John An­der­son the lib­eral party of New York’s nom­i­na­tion. An­der­son sub­se­quently took votes away from Jimmy Carter and al­lowed Ron­ald Rea­gan to win the state with 46 per­cent of the vote.

He worked for Queens de­vel­oper Fred Trump and helped Fred’s son Don­ald nav­i­gate the far more com­plex Man­hat­tan real es­tate world. Some­times when the fu­ture pres­i­dent found him­self hav­ing trou­ble in a ne­go­ti­a­tion, he’d pull a pic­ture of Cohn out of his drawer and ask his ad­ver­sary, “Would you rather deal with this guy?”

Cohn fell out with Trump in his last days, in part be­cause Trump gave him a pair of what ap­peared to be di­a­mond cuff­links. They turned out to be zir­co­nium. Cohn got back at him by stiff­ing Trump on a ho­tel tab.

But, con­trary to some re­ports, Trump did go to Cohn’s fu­neral. He didn’t speak, he wasn’t a pall­bearer. He stood qui­etly at the back. (Ron­ald and Nancy Rea­gan couldn’t make it, though Cohn was buried in a tie bear­ing the pres­i­dent’s name.)

By Cohn’s lights he won—he died broke, ow­ing the IRS mil­lions of dol­lars. Some peo­ple would call that smart.

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