“WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?”— “The Bigot Whisperer”


“The Bigot Whisperer”

Amos Lassen

 “Where’s My Roy Cohn” is a new documentary from Matt Tyrnauer that takes its title from a quote that has been attributed to Donald Trump at a meeting with advisors where he expressed his frustration at the purported lack of loyalty among his staff. “Where’s my Roy Cohn?,” he asked and yelled, wondering why no one would back him in his favor against the injustice of the Russia investigation. Trump had once known the former aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy, meeting him when he, Trump, was new to the world of New York real estate and Cohn was a long-established fixture of member of the mostly mafia legal defense teams. Unfortunately for Trump, Cohn died in 1986, so Trump’s cry fell flat and without reply. What you will see here is Cohn, the self-serving narcissistic sociopath that he was.

Trump does not make appear in this film until near the end and even then only peripherally. Instead, the film is focused squarely on the life of Cohn from his birth in 1927 through his career-making prosecution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (Cohn actually colluded with the judge to push for the death penalty) to his association with McCarthy and beyond. He was a master manipulator of media who understood that one should never apologize for anything, ever and that he must never give up, never surrender. He was indicted numerous times for professional misconduct and was finally disbarred in 1986, mere months before his death from AIDS. Cohn was deep in the closet and known for his homophobic attacks on government workers.  His vicious hatred precludes any empathy we might accord to a gay man of his generation. Cohn mainly cared about Cohn.

We go through the main details of Cohn’s career until the end. This is the movie that Cohn deserves, it is slow and steady and gives facts but not much more. Tyrnauer uses traditional documentary techniques of voice-over narration, direct interviews, archival footage and photographic stills to expose Cohn’s malign influence and contextualizes him as a modern Machiavelli who influences our country today at the highest level.

He first came into the public eye as an assistant to J. Edgar Hoover and handled the prosecution of the Rosenbergs, a Jewish couple arrested, tried, convicted and executed for spying for Russia and securing Manhattan Project documents for the Russian government. Cohn,  was then a twenty-three-year-old fast-rising attorney who claimed to have not only persuaded the presiding judge, Irving Kaufman, to impose the death penalty but also to have had Judge Irving assigned the case. Cohn’s reward for the Rosenberg execution was an appointment as special counsel to the 1950’s American Senatorial disaster, Joseph McCarthy.

Tyrnauer provides compelling evidence that Cohn was responsible for much of McCarthy’s demagoguery and rise to power. Soon, however, Cohn would bring about his own and McCarthy’s fall from grace. During the Army-McCarthy hearings, direct questioning revealed Cohn had a “special relationship” with G. David Schine and pressured the U.S. Army to give Schine preferential treatment. Cohn resigned after he was humiliated by homophobic comments during the televised hearings. He, however,  claimed everybody wanted him to stay on but according to those who worked with Cohn, this was not the case.

From that, Cohn went on to be the personification of evil in 20th-century American politics. He was a mover and shaker “of dubious means”. He built his persona even though he was responsible for causing financial losses on his clients and family. We see the origins of the seditious right wing’s ascent, showing how Cohn, as  a deeply troubled master manipulator, has shaped today’s political world. He constantly defended himself by attacking his adversaries and utilized the press to generate sensational public sympathy for his plight.

Cohn refined his strategy over the years as the primary press leaker during his McCarthy days and gaining the friendship of the formidable press magnate, Walter Winchell, and other ambitious reporters. How Cohn had been able to pressure the judiciary was less clear. It seems that his political clout came from his wide social circle of wealthy, influential friends. Cohn was known for hosting lavish parties and mixing with almost every imaginable socialite of the day including artist, Andy Warhol, and he re-emerged as a New York power broker, mafia consigliere, white-collar criminal, and the mentor of Donald J. Trump.

Following Cohn’s lead, Trump began his flamboyant rise first on Cohn’s shoulders and then his back. Eventually, Trump became the master of personal attacks,  of sensationalism and hyperbole and using the press to get out in front of the story. The similarities between Cohn and Trump are uncanny and neither is the kind of person you would want to have dinner with..

“Roy Cohn was a corrupt lawyer, political dirty trickster, mafia associate and scumbag. He was a self-hating Jew who powered the engine of one of the worst anti-Semitic moments in American history, the demonization and execution of the Rosenbergs. He was a closeted man who refused to publicly identify as gay even as he was dying of Aids. He was so famous for being a mean bastard and there are not too many lawyers that can make such a claim.

Tyrnauer’s film is very standard collection of talking heads (including former protege Roger Stone) and news clips. We get an avalanche of facts. If there is a thesis here, it is that Trump ’s has been mentored by Cohn’s odious work.

Donald Trump was, for many years, a joke (though never a harmless one) but the damage he’s currently doing shames all because we laughed at him. The film connects Roy Cohn’s belligerent, boorish and obstructionist ways and our current President.

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