The Lasting and Malicious Legacy of Roy Cohn
Roy Cohn was many things: a liar, lawyer, manipulator, provocateur, and criminal.
But was he also a victim?
In her new film, Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn, Ivy Meeropol takes an empathetic look at one of the most notorious American Jews of the 20th century.
But although the film succeeds in humanizing Cohn — who helped pave the way for Donald Trump to become president — it’s hard to feel much sympathy for him. Cohn clearly relished his role in undermining the rule of law and perverting justice, and his lasting influence on American politics can still be felt today.
Cohn grew up Jewish and homosexual at a time when being both was shunned. He came from a prominent, well-connected family (his father was a New York State Supreme Court justice), and according to Meeropol, Cohn’s mother was determined to see him succeed — perhaps at any cost.
And succeed he did.
Cohn graduated from Columbia Law School at the age of 20, and quickly went to work for the US Attorney’s office in Manhattan. It was there that he found the case that would define his career, and perhaps his life: the prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
In the decades since the Rosenberg trial, the truth has largely come to light. Julius Rosenberg was indeed passing information to the Soviets (though likely not the high-level material claimed at the time). But although prosecutors did not have enough evidence to bring similar charges against Ethel, they did so anyway — hoping that the threat of her death would pressure Julius to confess and give up other Soviet spies.
But it didn’t work.
Rather than tell the truth and expose their colleagues and sympathizers, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sent to the electric chair.
The evidence needed to convict Julius was classified — and would have exposed both intelligence sources and methods. In order to circumvent this problem, the prosecutors used false evidence against the Rosenbergs. Most notoriously, Cohn persuaded David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother, to falsely testify against her.
Cohn never denied his role in framing the Rosenbergs. He once told Alan Dershowitz (who recounts the story in the film), that he “framed guilty people.”
Yet despite the objectivity of her film, Meeropol is no outside observer; she is the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and previously documented her family’s history in the moving Heir to an Execution.
One question that hovers around Cohn’s persecution of the Rosenbergs — and his subsequent role in Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt — is whether he truly believed in his cause, or just used it for personal gain.
Meeropol sees a combination of both — a genuine fear of communism, and a desire to get ahead (though she attributes Cohn’s fear of communism largely to its threat to his own way of life).
But it does appear that Cohn had some ideological convictions, which Meeropol believes distinguishes him from his protege, who now sits in the Oval Office.
Despite her personal connection to the story, Meeropol says she resisted making this film for years — partly because she had covered some of the subject before, and partly because of the emotional cost of spending more time with the man who literally killed her grandparents.
But all that changed with the election of Donald Trump.
Unbeknownst to many, Roy Cohn introduced Donald Trump to the world of politics during the 1980s. It was Cohn who connected Trump to Paul Manafort and Roger Stone — and the movie suggests that Cohn even pushed for Trump to become a nuclear arms negotiator (given current events, one might not be optimistic about the outcome).
Although Meeropol purposefully avoids drawing any direct connections between Cohn and Trump’s time in office, the linkages are sometimes hard to avoid. Throughout his life, Cohn assiduously waged a war on truth — believing that whoever controlled the media and the narrative could make their own facts. This idea has become central to American political life.
Cohn also worked — while a lawyer — to undermine the rule of law. It was certainly timely to rewatch the documentary days after Trump commuted Roger Stone’s jail sentence.
In the end, despite all his power and success, Cohn’s worst fears were eventually realized.
After contracting HIV, he was abandoned by many of his friends, including Trump. His power and influence waned. His sexuality and disease were made public. He was disbarred for his egregious misuse of funds and other criminal behavior.
In the film, one of Cohn’s friends says that he was particularly hurt by Trump’s betrayal, given how much Cohn had done for the real estate heir. But, Meeropol surmises, there is no honor among thieves.
As his political protege flounders amid an economic and moral crisis, one has to wonder if Trump will meet the same fate as Cohn.
Meeropol said she hopes “that Trump is exposed the way Cohn has been — that the lies he has told throughout his life will be uncovered” and that the truth will be revealed.
David Meyers worked in the White House for George W. Bush, and later in the US Senate.