If you don’t know who Roy Cohn was, you need to find out. Now.
You may be wondering why a person who died over 30 years ago is so worthy of your notice today. The reason is that Cohn’s life and career provide an instructive example of how to prosper by living your life entirely devoid of moral principles—and while I’m not recommending anyone follow his example, it’s useful to be able to spot the type. Cohn understood that if his actions were sufficiently brazen and his lies sufficiently belligerent, he could get away with just about anything. This approach to life might remind you of someone else who is currently holding a position of great power, and thus it makes perfect sense that Roy Cohn served as a mentor to the person who is now President of the United States.
Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn? serves as an excellent introduction to Cohn, and provides a lot of detail about his life and career that will come as news even to people who are somewhat aware of him. Speaking for myself, my mental Cohn timeline has some serious gaps in it—I remember him coming to national attention as Joseph McCarthy’s lawyer during the Red Scare of the 1950s, during which time he also helped convince President Eisenhower that gay people were security threats. I next remember that when he died in 1986, he made headlines because the cause of his death was AIDS, which at the time was both an epidemic in the gay community and a disease seldom mentioned in public by non-gay people. In between that time, he was a lawyer in private practice, with a client list that included Donald Trump, Aristotle Onassis, Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell, and Gambino crime boss John Gotti, but unless you were really paying attention it was easy to forget about his existence during those years.
Cohn lived the high life for decades, screwing the clients he could get away with screwing, and paying little to no income tax in the process. If you’re going to lie, lie big, to paraphrase Joseph Goebbels, and that’s exactly what Cohn did. It worked until he came up against a foe that was not in the least influenced by who he knew or what he had to say—the AIDS virus—and even then, he went to his grave insisting he had liver cancer, while at the same time leveraging his influence to get admitted to an early clinical trial of AZT. The fact that Cohn was disbarred only months before his death is reminiscent of Byron De La Beckwith being convicted in 1994 of the murder of Medgar Evers over thirty years earlier—while it’s satisfying to learn that justice finally caught up with a criminal, it’s profoundly disturbing that said criminal was allowed to live out most of his life in freedom before suffering any consequences for his crimes.
Tyrnauer’s film is loaded with details about Cohn’s life—did you know his grandfather founded the company that makes Lionel trains?—and packed with celebrity interview subjects and clips from news coverage illustrating key moments from Cohn’s career. Those details are both entertaining and informative, but to really understand the threat posed by people like Cohn, the broad outlines of his story are what’s most important. The reason is this: most of us live in a world where actions have consequences—commit a crime and you go to jail—and we assume that the same rules apply to everyone. That’s a natural assumption to make, and it’s also what the law says: in fact, the motto of my home state of Nebraska is “Equality under the law.”
The reality, of course, is quite different, and for some people this simple equation simply does not apply. When Donald Trump said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it, he wasn’t kidding, because he’s gotten away with much more. And when Roy Cohn said “Don’t tell me about the law, just tell me who the judge is,” he wasn’t kidding—because if you can’t work the law, you can always work the judge. And the latter may be the easiest road to getting what you want, which is all the Roy Cohns of the world care about. We can pretend that we don’t know that, or we can take notice and deal with them accordingly. | Sarah Boslaugh