This book published in 1989,not long after Cohn's death in 1986, is a strong reminder of why many ordinary people despise lawyers and politicians.Imagine a democratic society where its most influential politician was Senator Joe McCarthy, its chief law enforcement officer J Edgar Hoover, and one of its most powerful prosecutors, Roy Cohn. That was the USA for a brief period of time in the Conservative 1950s, and given what we now know about the character flaws of each of these three powerful men, that is a compelling reason to be glad that none of us now were working in public service or living in the US during that era.
What the three men had in most in common was their fanatical zeal in pursuing communists in the USA,and their obsession with purging the system of individuals that may have offered some minor threat to the American way or in many cases no threat at all. This biography of Roy Cohn reveals how he played a central role as attorney and confidant to Joe Mcarthy's Congessional Committee , and afterwards built on his past reputation,to establish a career as an attorney defending mobsters, and also representing seemingly more respectable clients like Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch.Cohn was also involved in several questionable business ventures that involved him in personal litigation, was often accused of betraying the confidence of his clients with leaks to the press, and of covering up his dangerously promiscuous homosexual behavior and lifestyle,which he always publically denied. Just before the end of his life,he was disbarred, and it became public knowledge after his death that he had died of an AIDS related illness.This sort of poetic justice must have made the hordes of enemies he made over the years feel vindicated.
Nicholas Von Hoffman has written an even handed biography of Cohn relying on oral testimony and anecdotes from Cohn's friends and enemies alike offering conflicting analysis of his sometimes puzzling character.The book begins with a chapter detailing Cohn's movements in the last weeks of his life, with his friends and carers describing him with affection in his final hours.The rest of the book traces the main events of his life,how he was born into the an influential New York legal family, his father a judge, his doting mother Dora, his brilliance as a law student that led to his involvement in the Rosenberg spy case, and to his employment by McCarthy. When McCarthy self destructed with the Army hearings of the mid fifties, he went into private practice as an attorney,lived continuously high and well sometimes beyond his means, almost married life long friend broadcaster Barbara Walters, and made a formidable enemy of future attorney general Robert Kennedy, who he had worked with on the McCarthy hearings.
Much of his life was lived continously on the edge of controversy and scandal. Though an alleged crony of Hoover,who often traded information and favours with him, Cohn's FBI file allegedly ran to over four thousand pages.The book ends with the announcement of his disbarment, with many questions about the truth of some of the more unsavory aspects of his personal and public life unanswered, with the available documentary evidence at the time of publication remaining both ambiguous and contradictory. This book still remains compelling reading twenty years after first publication.
The most entertaining section of the book is the account of the young Cohn's escapades in Europe with his even younger protege David Schine, as on behalf of the Congressional Committee, they toured American bases and embassies abroad purging library shelves of books that they deemed communist and threatening,including it would seem, one or two well established literary classics.During the course of the press coverage there was much ridicule of Cohn's preferential treatment given to Schine with his seemingly lack of credentials and expertise on their favorite topic Communism, and innuendo about the true nature of their relationship.On return to USA. Schine was drafted, and Cohn immediately tried to have it cancelled or preferential treatment granted. Cohn continually denied there was anything beyond friendship between the pair of them,and Schine throughout the rest of his life made no public comment about their relationship.
Nevertheless, this book does leave the reader with the strong impression that Cohn was a very unpleasant individual, a hypocrite, and a dangerous man to encounter. One idealistic lawyer quoted near the end of the book states that the behaviour of men like Cohn disillusioned him with practising law.Roy Cohn was a kind of talented individual that many regimes throughout history have exploited as a patriotic guardian against supposed threats to the system Cohn played a similar role to the Salem witch hunters, the Tudor campaigners against Catholicism and heresy, and the self righteous bureaucrats now leading the current war on Terror.That some political Conservatives champion such men as Roy Cohn as heroic and necessary to a democratic system of government is an unfortunate reflection upon themselves.