High life

Why Roy Cohn is not one of the world’s most evil men

12 October 2019

9:00 AM

12 October 2019

9:00 AM

New York

The Roy Cohn documentary Bully. Coward. Victim: the Story of Roy Cohn was successfully screened at the Lincoln Center last week to a full house. Cohn was once Donald Trump’s lawyer, and after the screening the event turned into an anti-Trump show. Had I known this would happen, I would have stayed away, but what is a poor little Greek boy trying to make it in the movies to do?

As a young man, Cohn was an aide to Senator McCarthy. He made his name by ensuring that Joel and Ethel Rosenberg, who spied for the Soviet Union, were sent to the electric chair. And here’s the problem with the documentary: the treacherous Rosenbergs emerge as heroic victims, while my friend Roy Cohn comes out of it looking worse than Satan. There is something very wrong here. The Rosenbergs betrayed their country, but the film depicts their treason as being unimportant. Truth be told, the real traitor was the scientist Klaus Fuchs, German-born but working for the Brits, who provided what the Reds needed to go nuclear. Still, the Rosenbergs were traitors at a time when Uncle Sam and the Soviet Bear were eyeballing each other and ready to shoot.

The documentary was made by Ivy Meeropol, who is the granddaughter of the Rosenbergs. We saw a lot of her father as a little boy visiting his parents at Sing Sing.  (A heart of steel was required at this point, and even more so when the old man came on stage after the film and blubbed about his parents’ death 66 years earlier.)

But here’s my point: these spies (David Greenglass, the Rosenbergs, Fuchs) were Jewish. I remember how, as school students, we remarked on the fact that although Americans had fought and died in order to save Jews — as had the Brits — these particular spies were giving aid to a country that wasn’t known for its philo-Semitism. So, according to the very few pro-Cohn voices, when Roy Cohn, scion of a devout Jewish family, went after the spies he was doing Judaism a favour. This point of view isn’t given much of a platform in the documentary. On the contrary: people denounce Roy as bringing shame on the Jewish people.

Betrayal of Uncle Sam does not feature in the film, which focuses instead on Roy’s aggressiveness in pursuing the Rosenbergs. I found that intellectually dishonest, because it was their own actions, not Cohn’s, that landed the Rosenbergs in the electric chair. But the subject of betrayal brought back some very poignant memories.

I was just four when one of my father’s friends, a department store tycoon, was condemned to death by a Greek court for having presented someone else’s X-rays (this person was suffering from tuberculosis) as his own in order to avoid military service. The year was 1940 and Greece was fighting the Italians in the north and about to be attacked by the Germans. My mother’s uncle, the man who had actually brought her up, was chief justice of the Supreme Court. My father asked my mother to plead for a stay of execution but my great-uncle refused. My mother told me, with tears in her eyes, that her uncle’s words are always etched on her mind. Something like ‘I will do anything for you, my dear Mando, but while poor farmer boys are fighting on the front a rich man cannot be allowed to get away with it.’ The tycoon was shot at dawn the next day. His family and mine are still good friends today. The execution and my great-uncle’s words made a great impression on me, a young child. I could hardly read but I had been warned: there is a higher loyalty than loyalty to self — the love of country.

Yes, patriotism has been called the last refuge of a scoundrel and all that, but loyalty and love for one’s nation still makes one stand tall. To this day, the memory of seeing Italian prisoners of war marched into Athens after our first major victory against the Duce’s forces in Koritsa, Albania, makes me feel awfully proud. E.M. Forster’s famous saying about choosing a friend over one’s country is bogus. If the friend has articulated his or her disapproval of a country and has made no bones about it — fine. They have every right to do whatever they feel is right. But the Rosenbergs and the Greenglasses and the Fuchses were not dissidents. On the contrary, they worked for the government and were considered patriotic for doing so.

The ambiguities of the Cold War made things far more complicated than they had been previously. There were good guys and bad guys — and both sides claimed to be good. The irony of all ironies is that many Germans thought that Claus von Stauffenberg was a traitor. But only 20 years after the war was over, a street was named after him.

Ivy Meeropol is a very nice girl who is trying to right what she considers a wrong. But according to little old me, she’s got it wrong. Roy Cohn may have had a gruff exterior but I always thought he was gooey inside. Broadway, the movies, and now a documentary have made him out to be the world’s most evil man. And as always they’ve got it the wrong way up.

Next week I’ll tell you how a woman threatened to break my nose. Ouch!

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