Roy Cohn was one of the most loathsome characters in American history, so why did he have so many influential friends?
Briefly, in the nastiest of times, Roy Cohn did certain things that made him worthy of a historical footnote. In the eighteen months he served as Senator Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel, he contributed in some degree to the establishment of what Nicholas von Hoffman calls our ongoing era of two dreadful isms: loyaltyism and securityism.
But, though Cohn was one of the brashest and most easily hated, he was only one of numerous creators of the isms, and his role has probably been greatly overrated simply because he was so adept at publicizing himself.
In any event, the importance of Roy Cohn's life after that "short, wild ride" in Washington thirty-five years ago was of no significance at all. Except as it illuminated, and still illuminates, the society that fawned over him and allowed him to flourish. In that respect, but only in that respect, it was of enormous significance.
Von Hoffman reminds us that Cohn "lived in a matrix of crime and unethical conduct," "derived a significant part of his income from illegal or unethical schemes and conspiracies," and thrived "cheek by jowl with so many men of sharp practice and dim luster in business and politics" that Cohn's pal Joey Adams, the comedian, would say of Cohn's dinner parties, "If you're indicted you're invited."
But important unindicted people were invited, too. And they went. Large slices of the upper crust of New York and Washington snuggled up to him, laughed and entertained one another with stories about his crimes as though they were choice insiders' jokes, and wrestled for the privilege of partying with Cohn and his crooked and perverse friends. Why choose his company? The sleaze of Roy Cohn was no secret. Why ignore it? Why excuse it? The only important questions forced on us by these books have nothing to do with Roy Cohn, but everything to do with judges and lawyers and publishers and writers and TV stars and politicians and developers--the wealthy and the powerful people who for many years ate Roy Cohn's shit with a grin.
An example. Cohn was attorney for Studio 54, which von Hoffman identifies as "perhaps the most glamorous, fashion-setting nightclub to popularize drug use among white-collar people." Cocaine was its mother's milk. "That the establishment was run on lines contravening half the laws in the statute book made it not one whit less popular." For special celebrities, the wildest parties were held in the basement, where, along with high society's homosexuals, transsexuals and transvestites, one could find many illustrious souls who were there for the kick of watching and smelling. It was in Studio 54's catacombs, writes von Hoffman, that Cohn held some of his biggest birthday bangs, attended on at least one occasion by "the important officials of the Democratic, Republican, and Conservative parties, most of the city's major elected officials, a number of congressmen, the Chief Judge of the United States District Court and Roy's usuals, comedian Joey Adams, columnist William Safire, Donald Trump, Si Newhouse, Sidney Zion, and doubtless many another that the excluded Voice reporters did not pick up on standing outside in the street."
Why were those people there, sucking up to Cohn?
And what were people like Geraldine Ferraro and Alan Dershowitz ("who was a somewhat well-disposed acquaintance of Roy's") doing at other Cohn parties and showing up as character witnesses when he was about to be disbarred?
And aren't liberals a bit troubled when they read that one of their old standard-bearers, Murray Kempton, had "a contemptuous affection for Roy"? What is contemptuous affection? Is that what liberals feel who are too gutless to hate?
Is it possible that the New York legal community is as riddled with corruption as even the surface evidence in these books indicates? To be sure, Cohn was ultimately disbarred for lying, for stealing insurance money received after the burning of a yacht on which a crew member died (murder?), for trying to cheat a client out of $100,000, and for forging a signature--but the bar's blustery pretense of morality did not come until Cohn was so sick he could never have practiced law again anyhow. Where were the pious attorneys when he was riding high? It wasn't that they were ignorant of his shenanigans. Von Hoffman says that "some of the most important and influential practitioners of law in the United States had an idea of what kind of lawyer Roy was years before he was expelled from his profession"; indeed, more than an "idea." Cohn was famous among lawyers for winning cases by "delays, evasions, lies, and fixes," and by some he was "considered the brains behind whole networks of thieving public officials."
It's because they provoke, endlessly, questions about supposedly decent people--not because they give an elaborate resume of Cohn--that these two books are important social documents.
And always there are troubling questions about the press. Why was it-- if von Hoffman knows what he's talking about--that, at the very height of Cohn's criminal career, only one newspaper of general circulation, the New York Daily News, communicated to the subway straphangers that "the glamor lawyer was a crook"? Besides the News, only The Village Voice and The American Lawyer told the truth about Cohn. At the same time, The New York Times, the most prestigious of the print media, continued to put Roy in its news columns in a most favorable light, while CBS News, then the most prestigious of the broadcasting media, did a laudatory 60 Minutes piece." Sometimes lawyers settled cases with Cohn not because they couldn't whip him in court but because they feared that Cohn would smear them and their clients through easy manipulation of the press. As one lawyer told Steven Brill, publisher of The American Lawyer:
We weren't buying off the lawsuit. We were buying off Roy Cohn. It's Cohn we were interested in, and what he said he could do to us in the press...He can get a headline in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times icking up a phone....These papers printed uncritical, big headline accounts of Cohn's charges.
Someday William Safire, a very old and very close friend of Roy Cohn, may be so kind as to entertain us in his New York Times Magazine column, "On Language," with a discussion of "press ethics," complete with illustrations of its oxymoronic qualities drawn from the press's relations with Cohn. He might even want to tell us, for example, what he thinks "sellout" means, in reference to the work of gossip columnists and political columnists.
When these columnists--people like Liz Smith and Safire himself-- become conduits for the self-serving dirt supplied by a fellow like Cohn, and then give him the kind of publicity that he can change into power and money, is that selling out? Is it the same as giving and accepting a bribe?