Saturday, July 30, 2016

Fear on Trial

In I'm Sorry John Henry, I wrote:
John Henry Faulk was a well educated man. A protege of J. Frank Dobie, a friend of Edward R. Murrow and Louis Nizer. A man who knew the evils of the Jim Crow segregation laws and spoke up against it at a time when there was real danger in doing so. A man who stood up to a world class bully like Roy Cohn when, again, there was real danger, and won. I think back and wonder how he must have felt with the boy I was asking him about things of which he knew so much and about which I knew so little.
Like rotted deadfall, I thought Roy Cohn had faded from the landscape of history. I was wrong. If I asked my teenage sons about Cohn, neither would likely know him, though both are conversant on current events and history. Neither would know who, nor what he was, nor why either inquiry is important.

Cohn's rise to fame started with his public role in the prosecution and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were executed for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. As this post is about Cohn, not the issues surrounding the Rosenbergs, it is enough to say they were the only two civilians to be executed for espionage during the Cold War. The Rosenberg's Wikipedia page summarizes Cohn's role in their prosecution:
The Rosenbergs were convicted on March 29, 1951, and on April 5 were sentenced to death by [Federal] Judge Irving Kaufman. [Prosecutor] Roy Cohn, who would play a major role assisting Joseph McCarthy with his hearings as his chief counsel, later claimed that his influence led to both [U.S. Attorney] Saypol and Judge Irving Kaufman being appointed to the case, and that Kaufman imposed the death penalty based on his, Cohn's, personal recommendation. The conviction helped to fuel Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations into anti-American activities of U.S. citizens. (footnote omitted).
To understand Joseph McCarthy, you must know Cohn. McCarthyism may now be a label of infamy, but without Cohn, there would have been no McCarthy. It is hard now to sort the fiction from the fact concerning those times, but Cohn was there, missionary to the threat of communist conspiracy. John Henry Faulk was fall out of Cohn's zeal. Faulk's book Fear on Trial documents his brush with this history, and Cohn.

Yet as McCarthy's star crashed, Cohn's somehow ascended. Cohn became a "go to" lawyer in New York. He was a social staple at the Hamptons, Manhattan's Upper East Side parties and Studio 54. Cohn was later disbarred for stealing a client's money. Nicholas von Hoffman in his biography Citizen Cohn, published in 1988, describes much worse ethical lapses by Cohn. Cohn used litigation like a club, using lawsuits to intimidate and cajole opposition to heel.

Cohn also vilified what is known now as the LBGT community. This despite his own brutal death at the hands of AIDS. To his death he publicly insisted it was cancer.

The question is how did Cohn not just survive, but thrive? Cohn had the hucksters ability to make people believe in him while simultaneously snaking a hand into their pocket. Cohn did all this while sneering at the institutions and authority he believed to be ruining his America. It was all part of his skill set in selling the art of the deal.

In a story titled The Snarling Death of Roy M. Cohn from the March 1988 edition of LIFE Magazine, von Hoffman documents Cohn's America, and includes a photograph of an unrepentant Cohn months before his death:
But just as his Communist foes hid their secret beliefs, Roy Cohn hid his private life as a homosexual. When AIDS killed him in the bloom of the Reagan years, the public discourse had turned to family values and Americanism. The triumph of patriotic kitsch must have pleased Cohn, for he himself reveled in little flag-waving displays. At his parties he'd haul people to their feet to sing 'God Bless America,' evidently his favorite song, and though he was a lifelong operagoer, Roy's idea of a good time was to sing patriotic ditties at a piano bar in Provincetown, on Cape Cod.  
From the mid 1970's until his death Cohn mentored a person whose talent he must have recognized: a young Donald Trump. The connection between Trump and Cohn, and the lessons young Trump learned from Cohn are detailed by both the New York Times and Politico. In my deepest reaches I believed Cohn's death was proof karma existed. Now, it seems, Roy Cohn is actually laughing at me, and suckers like me, from some celestial, or infernal, perch.

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