Study Guide

Roy Cohn in Have You No Sense of Decency?

By Joseph R. McCarthy, Joseph N. Welch, et al.

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Roy Cohn

Roy Cohn was McCarthy's right-hand man—and a Democrat.

Yup, super-Republican McCarthy's right hand man from 1953-4 was a registered Democrat. Sure, he backed Republican politicians for most of his life, but he was still technically a Democrat. Weird, right?

From the get-go, Cohn was torn between worlds. His father was a New York Supreme Court Judge, but his maternal uncle was sent to Sing Sing prison for bank fraud. Cohn seemed to take more after his father, and went into law. Cohn finished with his law degree by age 20; at 21, he passed the bar, and thanks to a little nepotism, joined the Justice Department as an attorney.

He first made his name in the trial of alleged spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. He got convictions, and they were both executed. This got the attention of Joe McCarthy, who decided he liked how Cohn operated and named him chief counsel on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Ironic that Cohn would end up contributing to McCarthy's downfall. (Sorry, we're getting ahead of ourselves.)

Fun fact: one of Cohn's assistants was none other than Robert F. Kennedy. Yes, that Kennedy. He and Cohn eventually had a falling out that led to a shoving match and Kennedy's resignation from the committee.

It was Cohn's friendship with McCarthy aide David Schine that led to ultimately led to McCarthy's undoing. Schine, who most people acknowledge was Cohn's love-object, if not lover, was about to be drafted into the Army. Cohn made all kinds of demands that Schine, rather than be drafted and possibly sent overseas, be instead given a commission and kept close to home—preferably in New York.

Cohn allegedly threatened to "wreck the Army" if Schine was sent overseas, and vowed to use a certain Senate committee he worked with to destroy the Secretary of the Army and several other prominent military men. The Army determined that Schine wasn't qualified for a commission but Cohn continued to agitate for special consideration for him. Which led to the Army-McCarthy hearings and thus McCarthy's downfall.

Cohn's career was bruised but far from destroyed. He went into private practice, working for jetsetters like Andy Warhol and a mobster named Fat Tony.

Hm. Until this moment, we always assumed Fat Tony was just a Simpsons character.

Cohn took his confrontational tactics into his practice of law. He was proud of it:

"My scare value is high. My area is controversy. My tough front is my biggest asset. I don't write polite letters. I don't like to plea-bargain. I like to fight. You might want a nice gentle fight, but once you get in the ring and take a couple of pokes, it gets under your skin." (Source)

Cohn was known to be fiercely loyal to his clients, and represented everyone from mobsters to the Archdiocese of New York. (The truth, he liked to say, was never black-and-white.) One of Cohn's wealthy clients was Donald Trump. Cohn became close friends with the magnate, and even became something of a political mentor. After Cohn was disbarred for various inexcusably fraudulent legal actions, Trump hosted a ridiculously expensive dinner for him. Cohn died in 1986 of complications from AIDS, which he insisted was liver cancer.

Cohn had to be one of the most universally despised people in the country. He was a Jewish guy who persecuted Jews, and a closeted gay who viciously went after gays. Here's how TIME magazine described him:

Few who ever saw or heard him will ever forget the malevolent, heavy-lidded stare with which he pinioned witnesses; the adenoidal snarl as he closed in for the kill against a suspected Communist […]. (Source)

Over the course of his career, Cohn was a canny political animal who not only latched onto McCarthy's star, but also brought that star down and managed to walk away. While McCarthy was utterly destroyed in the aftermath of the hearings, Cohn was lurking around on the dark side over thirty years later.

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