- Historic Sites
July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
“People are forever asking me what I’d do differently if I had my life to live over again,” Cohn wrote. “I disappoint them because I wouldn’t change much....I have no sense of overriding guilt concerning my past, I look back with a clear conscience.” He shed no tears over the reputations he helped ruin while failing to uncover Communists in the government during his eighteen months at McCarthy’s side, and he shrugged off repeated charges of bribery, collusion, thievery, and tax evasion as nothing more than harassment. “I don’t care what the law is, tell me who the judge is,” he liked to say, and “…you trust and the next thing you need is a truss.”
His single stated regret was that he and his young fellow-counsel, G. David Schine, had ever undertaken their celebrated 1953 trip to Europe to purge United States Information Agency libraries of “more than thirty thousand works by Communists, fellow-travelers and unwitting promoters of the Soviet cause.” And he was sorry about that only because the press had portrayed him and his sleepy-eyed fellow-crusader as ludicrous junketeers. (Even here, Cohn was still playing McCarthy’s old game: in fact, at issue were not thirty thousand “works” but thirty thousand individual copies of books by 418 men and women whom McCarthy’s researchers had solemnly concluded were “Communist” authors—among them W. H. Auden, Stephen Vincent Benét, John Dewey, Edna Ferber, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., even Bert Andrews, a devoutly conservative newspaper reporter whose own anti-Communist zeal had earlier helped Congressman Richard Nixon nail Alger Hiss for perjury.)
Homosexuals were expecially easy targets for McCarthy—and for his zealous young counsel. When Cohn and Schine checked into European hotels during their ill-fated excursion, they took turns insisting loudly on adjoining rather than double rooms, explaining tastefully to the baffled desk clerks, “You see, we don’t work for the State Department.” Cohn maintained public scorn for homosexuals to the end of his life, going out of his way to lobby against legislation on their behalf, and, according to Zion, once turning away a delegation that hoped he would agree to defend a public school teacher fired because of his sexual orientation. “I believe,” Cohn said, “that homosexual teachers are a grave threat to our children.”
Since Cohn tried to seem more powerful than he was, it is hard to know which of these stories to believe.
More than mere hypocrisy was at work here. Roy Cohn had a lot to prove, or thought he did. He always seemed eager to demonstrate that a Jew could be more ornately patriotic than any Gentile—in the early 1980s he was still leading his dinner guests in singing “God Bless America.” Above all, he sought to dominate everyone he met, perhaps to show that this mama’s boy was tougher than the next guy, whoever that next guy might be. Asked point-blank by a reporter if he was a homosexual, Cohn answered, “Every facet of my…aggressiveness, of my toughness, of everything along those lines, is just totally…incompatible with anything like that…”
He was diagnosed as having AIDS in 1984 and shortly afterward was brought at last before the disciplinary committee of the New York bar. Defending him against charges that included having demanded a loan of one hundred thousand dollars from a client in a divorce case, then refusing to pay her back, his partner was reduced to pleading that Cohn was “a man who loves people, loves animals. He once jumped into a river to save a dog in trouble.” It didn’t work. In the spring of 1986, with only weeks to live, he was disbarred.
Throughout his career Cohn manipulated gossip columnists to keep him in the limelight he loved, and it seems fitting that the most succinct summary of that career may have been offered by Liz Smith of the New York Daily News. Despite his reputation, she said, Cohn was never really a great lawyer: “I think he was a great bully, who had connections and who frightened…people, and who was…the greatest scrapper and fighter who ever lived....He was totally impervious to being insulted.”
And he never lost his power to bring out the worst in everyone. About the time of Cohn’s last hospitalization, I happened to attend a gathering of New York writers, several of whom were publicly identified with the cause of more enlightened treatment for AIDS victims. Party chatter among writers being no more elevated than it is among, say, construction workers, the causes of Cohn’s condition were eagerly discussed.
“I never thought I’d be saying this about anyone ,” said one best-selling novelist, well known for her generous support of humanitarian causes, “but I’m glad he’s got AIDS. He deserves it.”
“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” agreed her no less celebrated, no less normally warm-hearted friend.
That kind of merciless venom would not have surprised its target. Roy Cohn seems to have relished the special loathing his enemies reserved for him, and as these two disappointing books imply, it seems more than likely that on some level he shared fully in it.