Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Man Who Won't Go Away

It's important to see the documentary, Where's My Roy Cohn? The late disbarred lawyer started out representing possibly the most evil person of the '50s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and then had a lengthy series of rich crooks, fixers, and rotters as clients for the next few decades. One of the reviews of this film suggested that the key question we should be asking is: Why did the rich and famous not only hire him but socialize with him, knowing how evil he was?

Of course, Tony Kushner made him the leading figure in his superb Angels in America and showed him as who he really was: a closeted homosexual who had persecuted other gay men. In many ways, he was the evil genius with few redeeming attributes. Even the many who despised him acknowledged his smarts: he knew how to use the law for his purposes. I recall reading an account in the NYU Law Review about how several public interest cases were litigated. In one of them, he represented the bad guys and his performance was a demonstration of how to use the law to delay and obfuscate.

He's most relevant today--many years after his death in 1986--because he was the early mentor of our current President when the latter was learning the real estate business. Cohn taught him never to apologize, always to fight back harder than he had been hit, and to lie and cheat as necessary. Amazingly, it looks like the title of this film reflects his difficulty in finding a mouthpiece as skilled and effective as Cohn was. In another profile of Cohn, in Esquire some years ago, one observer said that Cohn was the lawyer you wanted when your case looked like a sure loser, because he had just about invented the hardball style of litigation.

He had been a prosecutor on the Rosenberg case and his statement in a TV interview years after it showed his propensity to lie. It has become clear that Julius Rosenberg was guilty and that Ethel Rosenberg was not, but was prosecuted and executed in a futile attempt to "turn" Julius. It's also important to add that their espionage was hardly "the crime of the century," in J. Edgar Hoover's phrase, because Klaus Fuchs had already given the Soviets all the secrets they needed to build an atomic bomb. Cohn said in the interview that "we had tons more evidence against Ethel Rosenberg that we didn't even need to use," an obvious lie that is rendered even more despicable because he was communicating ex parte with the trial judge to encourage him to impose the death penalty.

The film is worth seeing to remind us that sharpsters like Cohn do get away with their crimes. Yes, he was disbarred at the end and he suffered a somewhat painful decline and death from AIDS. But he was something of a social lion in New York, and was welcomed as a lawyer and friend by the highest figures in the Catholic Church in the city. Cohn should be featured in the new law school ethics courses (which we never had when I was in law school) as the clearest horrible example of how a lawyer can use every skill and technique to succeed in defending the worst among us. Everyone is entitled to be represented, but we've rarely seen someone who spent an entire career protecting the rich and evil and oppressing those who hoped to find justice in our justice system. 

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