This is a tale of sickness, corruption and degradation at the highest levels of American economic, social and political life. It makes me ashamed of my country, and terrified for its future. The analogy that fits is Rome under Nero. The retribution that is surely coming will be terrible to behold.
The tale is told in the form of a biography of one of the minor players. Roy Cohn was a personification, but not a creator, of the rot that has spread through the élite of American life since World War Two. He was Jewish, son of a New York State Supeme Court judge, a mama’s boy (he lived with his mother until she died when he was middle-aged – she called him ‘Woy’ and he called her ‘Muddy’), a lawyer, a back-stage politician, a professional anti-Communist, a fixer and a manipulator.
Cohn was gay, a fact he simultaneously flaunted and denied, even as he was dying of Aids. He destroyed people indiscriminately. He was a fabulously successful lawyer who made millions of dollars and spent even more. His life-style might have made Imelda Marcos blush. He was a deadbeat who only paid a bill when he had a gun at his head. He was a blackmailer who dealt in gossip, threats and innuendo. His main characteristic was cynicism.
And yet his friends included Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, Norman Mailer, Barbara Walters (they almost married), Cardinal Spellman, nearly all the top Mafia people, Richard Nixon, Si Newhouse, Rupert Murdoch, Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, William F. Buckley, an endless list of Congressmen and judges and society swells, of the rich and famous. Cohn knew, dealt with, worked for, went to parties with and generally hobnobbed with more celebrities than any other American. He did favours for them all, and they for him.
Nicholas von Hoffman, a liberal news reporter who had been appalled by the young Roy Cohn who wreaked such havoc as Senator Joe McCarthy’s aide, has fallen into Cohn’s web, become entranced by him, and tries to get away with presenting him as a lovable rogue. Von Hoffman makes no attempt at sustained analysis: he is content to present one interview after another, from Cohn’s friends as well as his enemies. These anecdotes show Cohn at work – in famous, high-stakes divorce cases, defending Mafia dons, defending himself in numerous suits brought against him by aggrieved clients and creditors, whispering in the ears of gossip-columnists and of the power brokers in the Democratic and Republican Parties, acting as chief legal counsel for the Catholic Church of New York, making deals with the biggest publishers and television executives. The ancedotes also show Cohn at play. Drugs and booze and sex – perverted, constant, obsessive sex – provide the background for the main theme here, which is money. Cohn did not want to be rich, and never was, in the sense of owning very much: he just wanted to spend unlimited amounts of money, which he did, whether he had it or not.
Some of the stories are funny, some sad, some sickening. Some fall flat and some do not. At a Passover seder when Roy was a teenager, his Aunt Libby wanted to go into the kitchen to say hello to the cook, but Roy’s mother said: ‘No, I don’t want you to go in there.’ Later, when they came to the part of the seder where the question is posed, ‘Why is this night different from other nights?’ Mrs Cohn answered: ‘Because the serving girl is dead in the kitchen.’ The party went on.
In his very early twenties, having dodged the draft and cheated his way through Columbia University to get a law degree, Cohn was a candidate for the position of staff counsel to McCarthy’s investigating committee. His rival was Robert F. Kennedy, whose father and older brother were McCarthy supporters. These two intensely ambitious and utterly ruthless young men, as alike as peas in a pod, hated each other. Their rivalry ended only with Bobby’s death. Cohn got the much sought-after prize of working for McCarthy; Kennedy was his inferior on the staff; Cohn would send Kennedy out to re-fill the coffee cups; Kennedy went to work for the opposition; the kids had a public brawl; Kennedy got his revenge when he became Attorney-General in 1961 and used the Justice Department to hound Cohn with a series of indictments and tax investigations.
Kennedy’s replacement on the McCarthy staff was David Schine, too rich and too good-looking for his own good, an empty-headed chaser of pinks and reds. In 1952 Cohn and Schine went on a junket to Europe, to find and root out the Communist books on the shelves of the US Information Service, a State Department agency charged with spreading the good news about America. They created a public uproar with the silliest damn charges about this or that ‘red’ author (their list included some of the best-known American writers), while Cohn created a private uproar in the swankiest hotels in Europe by complaining loudly when he and Schine were not given adjoining rooms with a connecting door. In London, this improbable pair of patriotic truffle hounds created quite a stir, best summed up by an editoral in the Financial Times:
Not content with the notoriety he has achieved in the United States, Mr McCarthy now proposes to bounce into British affairs. He announces, as if by right, his intention of sending his agents to inspect the overseas services of the BBC. For the purpose he has chosen two roving and scummy snoopers, Messrs Shine [sic] and Cohn, who have created much turmoil in their inspection of the American Government’s information services in Germany ... We hope the BBC will afford no opportunities to Mr McCarthy’s distempered jackals. They should be told to keep out of Britain’s broadcasting affairs.
At a press conference, a reporter from the Mail asked what credentials the pair had to investigate Communism. Schine took him literally and reached for his wallet and pulled out a little card which identified him as a member of McCarthy’s staff. The headline in the Mail next day ran: ‘LOOK, MA, WE GOT CREDENTIALS – SCHINE.’
Back in the States, Schine got drafted. Cohn and McCarthy used all their considerable influence to keep him out of the Army, and when that failed, to get him cushy jobs, leaves, weekend passes. When the Army complained McCarthy threatened to expose the Communists in the service. This led to the Army-McCarthy hearings. Cohn, about to go on the stand himself to defend his actions with regard to Schine, went to Louis B. Mayer, the Hollywood movie mogul and a major backer of various right-wing causes, for advice. Mayer told him: ‘This is the way you open your testimony before the committee. You sit there, a young man with rosy cheeks, all alone with generals and admirals and Cabinet members seated in rows behind you, but with not a living soul but yourself to look after yourself, and you are clutching a little American flag and tears are running down your cheek ... You ask for a moment’s delay before you begin your testimony because you want to wave a greeting to your little mother who is sitting up in New York watching on television.’ Lt Colonel Oliver North must have been watching.
Cohn and McCarthy were disgraced in the hearings, shown up for what they were. Cohn lost his staff position, McCarthy was censured by the Senate. Nevertheless, there was a banquet in Cohn’s honour at the Astor Hotel on Times Square where members of the élite lined up to praise him.
He then went into private law practice. Through bribes, threats and favours, he got to the judges, and thus became much sought after by the guilty who could afford to buy their way out of trouble. A former law partner of Cohn’s describes his experience: ‘My most vivid recollection ... was a hearing for preliminary injunction ... Roy was not very well versed in corporate law so I’m responding to the argument. Roy chooses a moment to interrupt and ... calls me aside and says: “You’re not supposed to argue, the judge has already decided the case for us.” ’
Fearful that he would lose his licence to practise law in New York State because he got caught stealing from a client, Cohn applied for membership of the Connecticut bar. An associate asked him how on earth he would answer the questions on ethics. Cohn replied: ‘When I take the ethics exam, I’ll read the question and whatever I would do, I’ll put down the opposite answer.’
His life-style beggars description. He would charter jets to fly him and his boyfriends out to San Francisco, or over to Paris or Rome, for a party. He was always giving and attending parties, all over the world, yet one of his friends recalled that
eating with Roy was like eating with a pig because he would eat off everyone else’s plate. I mean those hands would be all over the table ... It wasn’t just the fingers. Roy would take a piece of bread and suddenly – you’d have gravy on your plate, and these fingers would be dipping into your gravy. It was just a manifestation of his total acquisitiveness.
And always there was the sex, the pretty boys, a new one every night, often three or four.
It wasn’t just boys. Von Hoffman reports that insiders in Washington speculate about Cohn and the ‘lavender Mafia’, a ‘group of closet homosexuals in important positions in the Reagan Administration. Whether a “ring” of such men, bound together by power, politics and sexual preference, exists depends as much on semantics as observed behaviour.’ What was certain was that Cohn had paths of access right to the top of the Reagan Administration, and was on the best of terms with the President and Nancy Reagan.
According to Cohn, in the Seventies and Eighties he was the most powerful non-office-holding politician in America. It is difficult to judge the accuracy of his claim, because, as one of his friends said, ‘I don’t know whether Roy lived to lie or lied to live.’ Cohn took credit for exposing the Democratic nominee for Vice-president in 1972, Senator Tom Eagleton, after, according to Cohn, manipulating his nomination. The Senator had undergone shock treatment for depression and booze; the press had not found that out; Cohn, who knew everything, knew about it; Cohn’s indignation at other people’s moral transgressions was boundless; he told Jack Anderson, who printed the story and ruined Eagleton. Cohn also claimed credit for alerting Anderson to the Mafia-tainted connections of Geraldine Ferraro’s husband, the revelation of which killed any chance the Democrats had in 1984. Whether or not Cohn lied in making these and so many other boasts mattered little: what counted was whether people believed him, and they did. That gave him power.
I wish the point of this whole sordid story was that the triumph of the right wing in American politics opened the door to the grotesque excesses of Roy Cohn and his friends. I wish the story went as follows ... Having been turned back in the Thirties and Forties by FDR and Harry Truman, and in the Fifties by Dwight Eisenhower, who would not allow Joe McCarthy to take control of the Republican Party, the reactionaries captured the Party in the late Sixties with Richard Nixon, only to be turned back again in the early Seventies because of the disgrace of Watergate. But they came on to achieve total victory in the Eighties, with Ronald Reagan, and from then on it was anything goes for rich and powerful reactionaries.
But the truth is otherwise. Cohn was a lifelong Democrat. Neither his boozy patriotism – he liked to end all-night parties by linking arms with his buddies to sing ‘God Bless America’ – nor his outrageous remarks – his solution to the welfare problem was to shoot the buggers – kept liberals from fawning on him. They had hated him in the Fifties, when he was seen as the evil genius behind McCarthy, but by the Seventies and Eighties, as von Hoffman writes, ‘the liberals were coming to him ... Court was paid to Roy.’ The list of courtiers included leading columnists on the New York Times. As Cohn liked to put it, ‘it’s not party but power which counts.’
Cohn died of Aids in 1986. The tears that flowed were copious and heartfelt. A young lawyer in Cohn’s firm gives us the best description of the mourners. In Cohn’s world,
if it’s illegal, you do it, you just do it. In that sense I think Cohn was no different from a lot of other people ... I don’t know how many people came into the office and said, ‘We’ve skimmed on our taxes,’ or how many people said, ‘We’ve made payments,’ or how many people said, ‘My wife had sex with a dead animal,’ or how many people said – it just went on and on and the more I was there and the more I met people from New York social life and the East Side Republican Club and the Euro-trash ... the more I saw how sick the upper echelon of society was.
Von Hoffman describes Cohn without explaining him, much less the society that allowed, or rather encouraged, such a man to flourish. Fair enough – it would take another book to do that job. A possible theme for such a book might be this: power corrupts, and money more so. The United States, in the post-1945 world, was suddenly much too powerful and much too rich for its own good. The quick buck, the fast deal, the awesome physical power and economic clout, the opportunity to use anti-Communism as a cover for any and all misconduct, the short cuts, the wink and the squeeze and the nod and the fix, were all of a piece. Cohn did not make this world: he just used it better than almost anyone else, because he fitted in so perfectly.