Cold War Bully: the Life and Crimes of Roy Cohn

Photograph Source: Roy Cohn, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right / World Telegram & Sun photo by Herman Hiller – Public Domain

Ever since the spring of 1954, when I was a precocious 12-year-old kid who watched the Army-McCarthy hearings on TV, I have loved to hate Roy Cohen (1927-1986), Joe McCarthy’s co-conspirator and dark twin. One year earlier, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg died in the electric chair at Sing Sing—the single most significant event in my boyhood. Even more important than when the Dodgers beat the Yankees, the Russians launched Sputnik and Beatniks appeared on the scene.

Like the Rosenbergs, my parents were Jewish and Communists who lauded the Russians for turning the tide against Hitler and fascism in World War II.  Patriots one moment in time, they were deemed subversives the next.

As much as anyone else in the U.S., including Judge Irving Saypol who sentenced them, Cohn was responsible for the death of the Rosenbergs, as Ivy Meeropol’s new, riveting documentary about Cohn and her own grandparents, makes abundantly clear.

After Ethel and Julius were executed, their sons were adopted by Anne and Abel Meeropol, who wrote two classics, “Strange Fruit” and “The House I Live In.” Like me, Michael and Robbie grew up in the subculture of the American left and joined the protest movements of the Sixties.

After watching Ivy Meeropol’s 94-minute movie, I no longer feel the urge to hate Roy Cohn, or to enjoy hating him as I did for decades.

Bully. Coward. Victim provided me with an occasion to experience a catharsis and a sense of emotional closure to a kind of inner turmoil that built and built for more than sixty years. Thanks, Ivy for that release, and thanks for being true to the spirit of your parents and grandparents. I imagine that there are others in my generation who will have similar feelings.

(Where’s My Roy Cohn?, a film which was released earlier this year, and that’s directed by Matt Tyrnauer, is streaming now on Amazon Prime and Hulu.)

The big surprise for me in Ivy Meeropol’s movie isn’t the fact that Cohn was a closet gay who helped to usher Ronald Reagan into the White House, that he lured Donald Trump to Manhattan from Queens, or that he did cocaine. No, the big surprise for me was how much Cohn loved the media, craved media attention and longed for glory. Bully. Coward. Victim shows that the mass media gave Cohn a big platform and built him up into a kind of American demigod.

The only person in front of Meeropol’s camera who understands Cohn’s love affair with newspapers, magazines and TV is Washington Post reporter, editor and columnist, Lois Romano, who says, “Roy was magnetic…he knew how to cultivate the media.” Romano nailed it. She also allowed herself to be nailed by Cohn, who used everyone and allowed himself to be used.

Bully. Coward. Victim shows clippings of Cohn on TV with Mike Wallace, Cohn on TV with Larry King, Cohn in Penthouse and on the front pages of major newspapers. I suppose that Cohn’s love affair with the media should not have come as a big surprise. After all, his appearance on national TV with Joe McCarthy provided him with fame, notoriety and ignominy in some circles and set him on the course he followed for the rest of his life.

Call him a sleaze bag, narcissistic and vain. Cohn clearly enjoyed media attention. Better than Joe McCarthy, who was a generation older than him, he understood the nature of TV and the power of the small screen, as opposed to the big movie screen. Indeed, he grasped the significance of the whisper rather than the booming voice, and the seductiveness of the insinuendo rather than the direct accusation. He was also surprisingly cool, calm and collected and rarely blew his top in front of reporters.

A child of TV, and a lover of publicity, Roy also enjoyed, as Meeropol’s movie shows, pulling strings behind the scenes as a deal maker and a Jewish version of Mario Puzzo’s The Godfather who flaunted his outrageous lifestyle in places like Provincetown on Cape Cod and in the luxury homes and apartment where he enjoyed a sumptuous life style.

In a country like the U.S. that touts individual freedom you get men like Cohn who are accountable only to their own selves.

Meeropol wants viewers to see and understand Cohn as “bully, coward and victim.” I can buy the first two, but not the third category. If he was a victim, his victimhood was largely self-created. Cohn had no one to blame but himself.

That he went into denial near the end of his life and insisted he didn’t have AIDS, when it was clear that he did, was in keeping with a lifetime of denial about who he was: a Jew who hated other Jews, especially Jews who were communists, and who, all his life, surrounded himself with white, wealth power-hungry Americans like Reagan, and like Trump.

Bully. Coward. Victim makes Cohn seem more important in the big scheme of things than he really was. Joseph McCarthy gave birth to McCarthyism and Orwell to Orwellian.  Eisenhower promised to bring American troops home from Korea and coined the phrase “the military-industrial complex.” He also threatened to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese.

Ivy’s inflation of Cohn is understandable in this very personal documentary in which the filmmaker herself and her father, Michael Meeropol, the Rosenberg’s older son, both appear on camera and talk about Cohn and Ethel and Julius, who seemed to me in 1954, very much like my own parents, who raised money for the Rosenberg’s legal defense fund.

Perhaps if this movie had been made in 1960 when I wrote about the Rosenbergs for a college paper I would have wept. I suppose there has to come an end to tears.

Is there a “takeaway” from this movie? I suppose so, though I strongly dislike the word “takeaway,” which I hear on TV all the time on the nightly news. The images themselves on the screen are mesmerizing. Perhaps they’re the takeaway, including the images of Donald Trump who learned from Cohn, lies like Cohn and uses the media like Cohn.

So, while Cohn is dead, his spirit is alive today and in the White House. The gospel of anti-communism, which animated Cohn, is also still alive. The American republic is as much in danger now as it was in 1953 and 1954.  Perhaps more so.

Will the media come to the rescue as it did during the Army-McCarthy hearings when the junior senator from Wisconsin was revealed as a bully and a coward? I don’t think so. If anyone can come to the rescue it’s the American people themselves who have been in the streets demonstrating what it means to practice genuine democracy of the sort that Cohn loathed with all his might.

Bully. Coward. Victim premieres on HBO June 19, the day of the 67th anniversary of the death of the Rosenbergs, still a stain on the conscience of the nation. See it now. Return now to the thrilling political and personal traumas of the Cold War and watch in action the corruption of America’s so-called ruling class.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.