Friday, June 27, 2008

A Roy Cohn for Every Era

In sum, Roy Cohn has recently appeared in The New Yorker as a friend of Barbara Walters, an eater of burned bacon and devilled eggs, a haver of sex with men (not gay), interested in power and access, and a role model to Roger Stone. In Lemann's "I Have to Ask" (May 12 issue) and Toobin's "The Dirty Trickster" (June 12).

Something prompted me to dig out (and through) my New Yorker archives and I found the very first mention of Mr. Roy Cohn in E.B. White's May 9, 1953 "Talk of the Town." Here:

"For us, a comical side light of the Washington quiz programs is that one of the quiz masters is Mr. Roy Cohn, who, we figure, was six years old when the banks closed in 1933 and every third man in America turned into a political philosopher overnight. A lot of the questioning of witnesses seems to turn on what the witness was thinking in the early thirties. (Mr. Cohn, of course, was an anarchist at that period - all children are.) Some witnesses, it has been revealed, philosophized themselves into the Communist Party and did a stretch there. Most of us, it would appear, just whirled around in beautiful, ever-widening circles of thought, soaring with the eagle of N.R.A. The only way to get through the day in that era was to plan societies, we recall that very clearly. When you got up in the morning, there wasn’t anyplace to go, so you sat down with the classified ads for awhile and then drifted smoothly into political theory. The fact that one of the fellows digging into the lives of the inhabitants of that tragic period is Mr. Cohn, who must have been playing with his celluloid toys in the bathtub at the time, gives us a chuckle."

A year later, White wasn't chuckling:

"Whether the Army resorted to blackmail, whether McCarthy and Cohn used improper pressure, are questions that interest everybody. But one thing is quite clear: this is no “squabble” (as it is often called) between the Army and McCarthy. This is the showdown on the country’s top problem in internal security. It involves the infiltration of Communists into places where nobody wants them to be, and it involves the infiltration of Senator McCarthy into the institutions that he doesn’t approve of and would to rearrange: the Constitution, the White House, the Army, and the Department of Justice; the press and other forms of ‘extreme Left Wing’ dissent; the two-party system (in which you call the other side anything you want to except ‘traitor’); the delicate balance between the three main branches of government; due process; and the nice old idea that a citizen isn’t guilty of anything just because someone ‘names’ him as guilty."

June 12, 1954, "Talk of the Town," E.B. White

Then, they pretty much left him alone.

In a profile Mark Singer did of an elderly court buff, in 1980, said court buff reminisces, "I still say Roy Cohn had the sharpest mind."

There's this cartoon. In 1988, two years after he died.

Supposedly, Roy Cohn is a keyword for a piece Remnick did on George Stephanopoulos, in 1996. (I couldn't figure out why Cohn was a keyword, but the profile did contain a joke about the still-humorous NYRB personals!)

And he came up, of course, when Angels in America was reviewed, as a play and as television.


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