Friday, June 24, 2016

"Roy Cohn was one of the most loathsome characters in American history, so why did he have so many influential friends?"

Or,  how and why do 'good' people allow 'evil' to flourish?

I posted about the relationship between Donald Trump and Roy Cohn the other day.  But then I saw lots of other articles on line about Cohn.  From all accounts, Cohn was cold.  Heartless and ruthless.  Yet the rich and famous surrounded him.  Barbara Walters was a lifelong friend.  Nancy and Ronald Reagan had him (and his young boyfriend) over at the White House.

So, after noting his close relationship with Trump, and what that might mean about Trump, I started thinking about how a man like that was so well protected by supposedly respectable people.  (Of course, one possibility is that they weren't as respectable as people think.)

I  had this post part way done.  Then Wednesday I got an email from Netflix saying that Spotlight, the Academy Award winning film about the Boston Globe  reporters who exposed the breadth of the Catholic Church molestation  and its coverup, was now available.  It was a movie we'd missed and wanted to see.  (It's a very good film.  A modern day All the President's Men.)  It too raises the same questions - why did so many people - in the church and out - look the other way?

So back to the main question from Robert Sherrill at The Nation::
"Roy Cohn was one of the most loathsome characters in American history, so why did he have so many influential friends?"
Here are some excerpts from the Sherrill article that make my (and his) point:
"Von Hoffman reminds us that Cohn "lived in a matrix of crime and unethical conduct," "derived a significant part of his income from illegal or unethical schemes and conspiracies," and thrived "cheek by jowl with so many men of sharp practice and dim luster in business and politics" that Cohn's pal Joey Adams, the comedian, would say of Cohn's dinner parties, "If you're indicted you're invited."
Yet,  the 'respectable' showed up too:
But important unindicted people were invited, too. And they went. Large slices of the upper crust of New York and Washington snuggled up to him, laughed and entertained one another with stories about his crimes as though they were choice insiders' jokes, and wrestled for the privilege of partying with Cohn and his crooked and perverse friends. Why choose his company? The sleaze of Roy Cohn was no secret. Why ignore it? Why excuse it? The only important questions forced on us by these books have nothing to do with Roy Cohn, but everything to do with judges and lawyers and publishers and writers and TV stars and politicians and developers–the wealthy and the powerful people who for many years ate Roy Cohn's shit with a grin.
Unfortunately, despite reciting all the things that made Cohn loathsome,  Sherrill  doesn't actually answer the question of why.  Though he repeats the question:
"And what were people like Geraldine Ferraro and Alan Dershowitz ("who was a somewhat well-disposed acquaintance of Roy's") doing at other Cohn parties and showing up as character witnesses when he was about to be disbarred?"

Here are some hints from a long Life magazine memorial by Nicholas Von Hoffman:

Peter Fraser, Cohn's twenty-something New Zealand born lover in Cohn's final years:
"People would ask me how could I be associated with somebody who did all these awful things in the 1950s," he says. "I don't know about any of that."
In the early 50s, a high school friend has Cohn over for dinner and overhears Cohn talking to Walter Winchell on the phone,  about destroying another newsman:
"And here was Roy Cohn saying, "Now, Walter, we could play this up, and we could do that, "and listening to this thing, I should have said, if I had had any guts, "Roy, that's outrageous", please leave. "But I didn't." - Anthony Lewis, columnist for The New York Times"
Probably the most common reason - it was symbiotic, they helped each other:
"For 40 years Roy had been taking care of the Newhouses, billionaire owners of newspapers and magazines, and for 40 years the Newhouses had been taking care of Roy."
"Zion, a former New York Times reporter, admits that Cohn did many favors for him, including helping him expedite a liquor license for a saloon Zion was buying, and he admits that Cohn was 'the best source I had" for news tips. In return, says Zion, he gave Cohn "advice" on how to handle the people at The Times. As for other things Zion did for Cohn, he says vaguely, "He never asked me to do anything I wouldn't have done for him anyway.'"
From SFGate:
"Many of [Barbara] Walters' other friends were horrified that she would even talk to Cohn, but what Walters reveals for the first time in 'Audition" is that Cohn somehow got a warrant for her father's arrest dismissed. .  .
Cohn liked to hint that they were more than friends "because I was his claim to heterosexuality," Walters says. 'He never said that he was gay, he never admitted to me that he had AIDS. He was a very complicated man. He died, alone, up to his ears in debt. He had been disbarred and he was hated. And I might have thought the same way, but he did something when my father was in trouble, [and] I never forgot that.'" 
Some, suggests Elizabeth Mehren in an LA Times book review of von Hoffman's biography of Cohn, just didn't understand exactly who he was:
". . . many people knew vaguely who he was without knowing fully what he had done. Those who were of age in 1950 would remember strongly the workings of the McCarthy committee, in which Cohn, as chief counsel, was the man who routinely asked witnesses, 'Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party.' Younger people would recognize Cohn from the pages of People magazine: a regular at Studio 54, the frequent dinner companion of Barbara Walters, a guest at the White House, the lawyer of rich and famous divorcees."
Another quote from Mehren offers another explanation why so many hovered around Cohn's light:
". . . as Steven Brill, editor in chief of the American Lawyer and a longtime critic of Cohn has said, Roy Cohn was like an automobile accident, the kind that makes rubberneckers stop and stare. "People are drawn to Roy Cohn that way," Brill told Von Hoffman."
Ultimately, it would appear that there was a giant web of connections and favors and threats.  Cohn could help you if you helped him, and he could harm you if you crossed him.  Sort of like a mafia boss - at least one of whom was part of Cohn's circle.

And in the movie Spotlight, we see how the Catholic church dominated Boston.   So many people in so many important positions - in the police department, the courts, the newspapers, the government, the businesses -  were part of the Catholic club, had gone to Catholic schools, been altar boys, still were members of the church, gave to Catholic charities.  As some of the victims said, when a priest talked to you, it was like talking to God.  The web was more than human.

And the key people at the Boston Globe were also part of the club and had ignored evidence that several different people had left them years before the movie begins.  It takes an outsider - a new editor, a Jew new to Boston -  to assign the story to Spotlight, the investigative team at the Globe. And it's an Armenian-American attorney who's been doggedly filing lawsuits in the court system for victims.  Other attorneys had been settling cases directly with the church, yielding small monetary settlements that required confidentiality agreements guaranteeing the secrets would be kept.

Ultimately, I think that if we can get deep into another person's psyche, we can understand why they do the terrible things they do.  That doesn't mean we excuse them.  But unless we understand why people go bad - whether it's some inherent biological cause or environmental factors, or both - we can never design ways to minimize the number of people that go bad, so to speak.  Talking about 'God's will" or  "agents of Satan" doesn't cut it for me.  That suggests there is nothing that could have been done to set the individual onto a more positive life path.

And with Cohn, some argue it was feelings of insecurity in a society that looked down on Jews and did worse to homosexuals.  Michael Kruse writes in Politico:
"He was a tangle of contradictions, a Jewish anti-Semite and a homosexual homophobe" 
His self-loathing, in this narrative, made Cohn fearful of exposure and humiliation, and thus he covered his own vulnerability as a Jew with his own anti-semitism and as a homosexual with his own homophobia.

The Takeaway

Cohn - and to a lesser extent the Catholic church portrayed in Spotlight - is the example of this post, but not the main point.

That's the issue of how 'good' folks protect 'bad' folks.  That's the question we should all be asking about the people in the news today.  It's the issue also we should ask ourselves about the people in our own lives that we should be calling out, or at least not giving the cover of our approval.

[UPDATE May 14, 2018:  Here's a New York Magazine article from April 29,2018 that covers similar ground in more detail and explores why none of the prominent Democrats at that time called out Cohn and, in the years since, Trump.]

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