Trump's Mentor


If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, no recent film could be more congenial to anyone with a heart or a brain than Where's My Roy Cohn?  (2019, dir. Matt Tyrnauer). Tyrnauer, whose repertoire includes Citizen Jane: The Battle for the City, Studio 54, and Valentino: The Last Emperor, presents us with a disarmingly simple thesis: Donald Trump was made in the image of Roy Cohn (1927-1986), the "sinister" sidekick of red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who was as "evil" as he was brilliant, both as an attorney in high-profile cases and in his private life. I will not argue about Cohn, because the point of the film is not that Cohn was a sleazy, corrupt, no-holds-barred bastard (he was), but that he and he alone taught Donald Trump everything that Mr. Trump knows about lying, cheating, stealing and (for the most part) getting away with it without the slightest remorse or shame. That is the thesis of this documentary -- indeed, the only one. The analogies are certainly there, and are worth examining. But the thesis is so one-sided, so formulaic, and so reductive that it invites refutation.

For one thing, it leaves Trump's father out of the picture (sic) entirely, yet everyone knows, and Trump himself admits, that his father had a formative influence on him, both as a person and as a "builder" in the real estate construction industry (see Mark D’Antonio, The Truth About Trump [2016] and Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success [2015], for all the relevant biographical details).

For another, it doesn't deal with the fact that Mr. Cohn was a gifted lawyer, notably erudite, exceptionally well prepared, armed with a photographic memory (which only deserted him in the last stages of his life, when he was dying of AIDS) and a rapier-like wit, plus a keen ability to reason from premises to conclusion without committing non sequiturs that even Mr. Spock might envy.

Whereas, Donald Trump has none of these (or any other) mental attributes, or else he keeps them well hidden.  Which raises the question, how (if at all) did Roy Cohn manage to teach Donald Trump anything besides being a jerk? Or was that somehow innate in both men -- all in their respective genes? Trump's greed and rapacity seem downright instinctual, whereas Cohn's were acquired (as the film shows) as a consequence of diasporic exile, re-enacted in the Bronx, where Cohn grew up, and within the walls that imprisoned him at home, like Kafka's wandering fly, darting every which way to avoid being swatted. Trump was to the manor born; Cohn was from an upper-class family whose wealth he squandered. How could a bad businessman serve as an exemplar or role-model for someone who constantly boasts of his wealth, and calls everyone who is not quite as rich "losers"?

The similarities between Cohn and Trump are strained to the breaking point, before they are even drawn. Instead of insight, we get interviews with important people who knew Cohn when, observed him for many years, were wronged (or appalled) by him, scarred by him, are still (rightly) embittered, and see clear resemblances between Cohn and Trump, which leads them to issue dire warnings, echoing a Greek chorus, even as they prophesy about the past -- that is, things Trump has already done. The problem here is not one of bias: or, if it is, I share it. Rather, it's that you can't connect all the dots when there aren't that many to connect, and they veer off in ways that defy Rubik to erect a new cube -- a high-rise, open only to lawyers for Cosa Nostra and their sleazy clients.

What's left isn't even a polemic, but a rant -- an a priori  judgment, based on scant evidence mixed with spite. It is not propaganda, but something far worse:  shoddy journalism, which plays right into the dirty hands of ideology. The search for "Citizen Cohn" is both fascinating and undeniably important. But you need a search warrant, or else the whole project is bogus and invalid.

Lest I be accused of doing the same (vague generalities, as opposed to making specific criticisms supported by verifiable claims), I present some pertinent items for public inspection. Here are some of the many errors of omission and commission that mar this film, and make it unworthy of being called documentary, except in a fanciful or Pickwickian sense:

1.  No mention is made of Cohn's touchy and troubled relationships with the two Kennedys, dating from his appointment in 1951 as McCarthy's chief aide, when Hoover chose him over Robert Kennedy, to his censure by the Senate in 1954, on a date when Senator John Kennedy was hospitalized and therefore conveniently unable to vote. RFK disapproved of Roy Cohn's methods but liked him personally, as did so many others. They worked out an uneasy truce; Bobby never disavowed him openly, nor refused any assignments. They were seated together at most of the televised sessions of HUAC, in 1953-54. JFK did not wish to appear “soft” on anti-Communism, nor to betray a fellow Irish Catholic, and risk alienating both church officials and his Massachusetts followers. His operation for Addison's disease was behind him by the time that McCarthy came up for censure, but he lingered in the hospital to avoid having to appear on the Senate floor and cast a ballot. As Eleanor Roosevelt said of him in 1957, "he needs less profile and more courage." A concise synopsis of the man, and of the book he didn’t write (as Sorensen confessed, much to the dismay of Jacqueline Onassis, when he could no longer keep it a secret).

2.   Cohn helped Ronald Reagan defeat John Anderson in the 1980 NY State Primary. But Anderson's campaign had problems of its own, from start to finish. No money, poor showings in various states, a trip to Europe to burnish his foreign policy credentials that cost him precious time at home, wooing voters who didn't care about that, and didn’t even know his name.

The idea that Cohn was responsible for Anderson's downfall is ludicrous. Anderson would be the first to admit it -- and he did. Similarly, the idea that Cohn was the "fixer" who was instrumental in getting Ronald Reagan into the White House is preposterous, not because Reagan deserved to win, or because he had clean hands, but simply because it didn't happen that way. Cohn's role in Reagan's victory was minimal. Jimmy Carter was the architect of his own defeat: he beat himself, from OPEC to the Iranian hostage crisis, and from Bert Lance and Hamilton Jordan to the ill-fated "malaise speech." No further analysis or explanation of the decisive phase in Reagan’s ascent to power is necessary.

3.  Geraldine Ferraro had IRS woes, a loose tongue (racist remarks), and purported connections to organized crime. Her boat sank as it left port. Again, whatever Cohn did to her is nothing compared to what she did to herself.   

4.  Thomas Eagleton was a victim of prudery and prejudice (against psychiatry). McGovern lost his nerve, and his senses -- he should have gone to a shrink.  Eagleton was not "improperly vetted," as some allege; but Robert Novak's column tarred him with a broad brush ("amnesty, abortion, acid"). Unfortunately, Eagleton handed Novak the brush, thinking it was confidential and "off the record." Yet he was more sinned against than stupid: replacing him with Sgt. Shriver was the height of absurdity. So was doubting his mental state or stability, compared to Richard Nixon. Roy Cohn was not the issue. The chaos within the party (left over from 1968) was.

5.  The lawsuits involving Trump's apartment houses were settled between 1975 and 1978, not (as shown in one piece of footage) 1982. This is a very minor point, but it illustrates the sloppy editing and lack of diligence that are apparent throughout.

6.  Photographs of Cohn during various phases of his life always show him in an unflattering, unfavorable, hideous and threatening light. Granted, he wasn’t a matinée idol, but the mugshot approach is overdone. Alas, poor Nixon: only the five o'clock shadow knows how hideous (and damning) the aberrant lens can be, even when it reflects upon its own refractions, rather than distorting by default, let alone, demonizing us by design. If Cohn stepped from the grave to complain about his close-ups, he would have a very compelling case. It is obvious that he was framed -- but the audience is still a captive.

7.  G. David Schine wasn't in the military, but (as was customary among select and privileged post-war peers) he wore crisp, neatly pressed uniforms to appear both authoritative and patriotic. In a nation of images, be it I Love Lucy, the Kefauver hearings or the Army-McCarthy trials, it was already imperative to have one that was spotless, all-American, and therefore above reproach. Unlike Donald Trump, Schine was not a con man or (as Holden Caulfield would say) a spoiled and vapid prep-school "phony," devoid of taste and bereft of character and intellect. But the regalia was part of his act, and (like the Music Man, minus the trombones) it did work, at least as a shield -- now there's an idea that Trump may put to defective use. Pity he didn’t think of it when he was of draft age -- or was Cohen unavailable to guide him through the Vietnam era, in such style that he might have faked it "perfectly," all the way from a Marine landing on China Beach to being "first responder" on 9/11, and on to being "chosen" to play (sic) the Messiah, coming to a resurrection near you.

But then, Trump only went to the Wharton school at U. of Pennsylvania. (Cohn went to Columbia.  He got his law degree at age twenty -- as the film recounts, he was too young to apply for admission to the NY State bar! Young Joseph McCarthy was smart, too, as all of his biographers attest.

Smart in conventional terms: so is Trump, which is why he outsmarts himself -- every day of the week. If he weren't such a fool, it might be fun to watch. Since we pay for his mistakes, we're the "morons," not Trump. How dim-witted can you get? Ask George Bush, but don't wait for an answer). 

Like Alger Hiss, who typed his epitaph when he "Whittiered" Richard Nixon's ravenous appetite for vengeance (or blood sport), Schine was a Harvard man, class of 1949, and (like Roy Cohn) part of the old echt Jewish Borscht Belt bourgeoisie. Is that why they hit it off, and became such good friends, if not more than good friends?

Like Cohn, whom the film all but denounces as a "self-hating Jew" (an accusation hurled at any number of individuals, including Karl Marx, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Barenboim, Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, and me), Schine was eager to assimilate, given the Hiss case, not to mention the Rosenbergs.

He married a Swedish woman in 1957, a former Miss Universe (echt gentil), fathered several children, and became a prominent movie producer as well as an accomplished musician. He and his wife died in a private airplane crash in 1996, in a plane piloted by one of his sons, who died in the same accident.

He never discussed his involvement (if any) with Cohn after 1957. Was he gay? Some say yes, others say no. At the very least, he was, uh, bisexual. My guess is that his relationship with Cohn was asexual, but had homoerotic overtones, analogous to (e.g.) Leopold and Loeb, or (as a fictional archetype) Billy Budd and John Claggart. Indeed, if Cohn's malignity is the master trope, Melville is your main man-- no need to chase after white whales, "self-hating Jews," or Machiavellian masterminds.

8.   Finally, what about Dora?  As it happens, Dora was the pseudonym of one of Freud's most famous patients. But the film makes her out to be the mother of Satan -- or Adolf Hitler, to be precise (doting mother, an indifferent father, spoiled from an early age, yet insecure, lonely, sexually ambivalent).

But let's not exaggerate those parallels, either, or jump to absurd conclusions.

Where is Mr. Spock when we need him? In his absence, I must rely on my all too human logic, which tells me that there's no equivalence -- only some coincidences.

The difference is, Hitler was . . . poor. Hence his hatred of the rich . . . Jews, in particular. However, Hitler has a lot more in common with Donald Trump than with Roy Cohn. But that is not the point. Rather, the depiction of Dora is a textbook case (sic) of literary misogyny, posing as historical fact. I am sure she had flaws, and was in denial about many aspects of her son's life -- not just sex, but what he did for a living, how he 'earned' his money, and who all his friends were.

But from the moment she is introduced, we hear nothing but bad things about her: ugly, unattractive, overbearing, can't get or hold a man except through parental intervention (and extortion), bad marriage, more or less frigid, and saw or heard no evil, especially where her only child was concerned. Is there nothing about this woman that is even slightly redeeming? Did anyone bother to ask, or find out? 

Is this a documentary or a film noir, with cherchez la femme as its classic: sexist signature? 

And what of the (absentee) father, the judge whom we dare not judge, lest we be judged, too?

Add it all up and what do you get? A film that is half-baked, half-done, and totally bad.

Not only does it raise more questions than it solves, but it indicts itself more than it succeeds in portraying Donald Trump as the protégé of Roy Cohn. Trump may be many things, but when it comes to being a political sorcerer, he was never a mere apprentice, even to his own father. It is tempting to reduce a complex individual to a simple formula. In Trump's case, there is only one formula that fits him: he wants to be all things to all people, because he is no one, even to himself.

Roy Cohn was a despicable individual, but his battered, bartered and bruised soul was his own. Trump has no soul, no heart, and no brain: only the will to power, and an abiding faith that there is a sucker born every second, waiting to be cradled in the arms of a con man. The question is, will we make a liar out of him before the sad truth sets us free? 

Mr. Rohatyn is a retired philosophy professor in California who writes poems, plays, essays, and is now meditating on a book about Descartes.

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