Where's My Roy Cohn?
by director Matt Tyrnauer
My new film, Where’s My Roy Cohn? explores the chilling historical through line which connects Roy Cohn—the right-hand man to Senator Joseph McCarthy, and later, the quintessential New York City power broker and mafia attorney—and Donald Trump, who was Cohn’s last and greatest apprentice.
Roy Marcus Cohn entered public consciousness in the 1950s as a prosecutor in the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy case. It was Cohn who pushed successfully for the death penalty, especially for Ethel, who was innocent. Later, Cohn served as McCarthy's chief counsel during the senator's Communist witch-hunts. The investigations brought Cohn notoriety as the pugnacious young lawyer whispering into McCarthy's ear on flickering cathode tubes in millions of 1950s living rooms. Cohn, young demagogue-whisperer, soon soared to national prominence with a TV show: The Army-McCarthy hearings. Cohn later said, referring to the riveting, grotesque spectacle of those hearings, “People are bored; they want entertainment.” Entertainment would prove to be the vehicle for both Cohn (and his future protégé, Donald Trump) to achieve political power.
This first act alone makes Cohn a singularly dark figure in our history—a man who plumbed new depths of demagoguery, dirty politics, hypocrisy and abuse of the U.S. legal system. But Cohn, a master of behind-the-scenes manipulation, consistently maneuvered to the center of power throughout a 40-year career. After he recovered from the disgrace of Army-McCarthy, he went on to live in Manhattan, and became the attorney and fixer for a staggeringly disparate array of 20th century power elite. Among them: Cardinal Francis Spellman; Aristotle Onassis; Mafia kingpins Paul Castallano, John Gotti, Carmine Galante; and, most significantly, Donald Trump.
“[Cohn] saw himself as a political puppeteer,” remarks lawyer and author Jim Zirin, in the film. “He could pull strings and bring people together. He could pull strings and make people do things.”
Cohn is the author and practitioner of a doctrine of PR and lawyering typified by the maxims: If they hit you, hit back ten times harder; there is no such thing as bad publicity; and, never apologize, always double-down. Throughout his life, Cohn was a major seeker of publicity for himself, and was skilled at getting his name in the papers, his image on TV, and manipulating the media in general, a trait he would eventually pass on to his apt pupil. He was also, in the words of journalist Sam Roberts, a scholar of the Rosenberg case, “a legal magician,” able to get himself and his clients out of very tight legal jams. This, many years later, no doubt, was the impetus for Trump’s complaint uttered in early 2018, when his then-Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, had recused himself from oversight of the Mueller investigation, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” (Likely the first time a sitting president has suggested the title for a feature film.)
This film, however, is not at all a recounting of the dark current political landscape. It is, rather, a detailed look back at the peculiar—and thoroughly dark—life of Cohn, exposing many of his hypocrisies, crimes and quirks. He was very much a man of contradictions: simultaneously a sought-after figure among the power elite of his time, and a villain to anyone with liberal leanings; a registered Democrat who was an advisor to Republican presidents, mafia dons, as well as the Cardinal of the New York Archdiocese; a confirmed persecutor of homosexuals who was himself secretly gay, but also a close associate of the most right-wing moral crusaders, including the Reagans, who got him admitted into an experimental AIDS treatment program at the National Institutes of Health, whilst they ignored the HIV/AIDS crisis, and Cohn persisted in denying publicly that he had the disease.
In the modern era of corrupt politics, Roy Cohn connects the dots. His brand of politics, his amoral personal codes of conduct are what Where’s My Roy Cohn? is all about.