This footnote to the culture of the Cold War USA was published on 28 October 1989. It was written, in New York, for the series Heroes and Villains' published in The Independent Magazine in the early and hopeful years of that paper.
Few villains start their career as international jokes, but this happened to my choice, in his days as a young witch-hunter.
Well, it was not quite the start. Roy Cohn (1927-86) had already dodged military service, tried to bribe his professor Lionel Trilling, hounded the eminent expert on central Asia, Owen Lattimore, and helped to sentence the Rosenbergs to death as Russian spies, before he and his partner David Schine, two young men in their twenties who sounded like a bad vaudeville act, visited Europe in 1953 to investigate the Communist World Conspiracy for Senator McCarthy.
The parts of the Conspiracy that interested them were the failure of US Information Service libraries abroad to eliminate the works of Dashiell Hammett, and also the insufficient anti-communism of the BBC.
Cohn and Schine provided a wonderful excuse for demonstrating European anti-McCarthyism, not to mention cultural pastern, since his New York Jewish Roosevelt-liberal milieu abhorred intolerance and witch-hunts.
As a lawyer I don't care what the law is, tell me who the judge is he visibly preferred shady clients and mobsters, and not only found it useful but enjoyed suggesting that he could get people killed.
More to the point, because it eventually sank him, he floured not only routine obligations but the unspoken obligations of professionalism.
He bilked not only tradesmen, but the ghostwriter of his books — anyone who could, he thought, do him no harm. He betrayed his clients without hesitation. In the decades when it was child's play for a bright and connected lawyer to make millions legally in the Big Apple, he was a crook because he liked to be.
He had neither convictions nor even ambitions.
The great experiences of his life-time passed him by: the War, civil rights, Vietnam, Israel and the cause of minorities.
He was tempted neither by office nor by the pure thrill of capital accumulation which moved so many of the men with whom he consorted, one-dimensional Fausts to whom he played Mephisto the facilitator.
He owned nothing, collected nothing, looked after nothing.
What did he really want, except getting his own way in all things, avoiding uncomfortable thoughts and enjoying power behind the scenes, the ability to do favours and to carry out threats, recognized by those who counted and in the media by which he always lived?
It is too late to know.
Apart from a few unrequited personal favours to friends and lovers, and an ability to entertain, he did good to none and brought ruin to many—not only to McCarthy's victims but, by his irresponsibility, to the senator himself. He died as he had lived, jumping the queue over other Aids victims.
The best that can be said of him is that, born in any other country, he would not have become what he did. In no other country would he have received a presidential telegram in hospital ('Nancy and I are keeping you in our thoughts and prayers'). But when he died, even Reagan's White House kept shtum.
Addendum – Roy Cohn represents Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch
In 1971, businessman Donald Trump moved to Manhattan, where he became involved in large construction projects.
In 1973 the Justice Department accused him of violating the Fair Housing Act in his operation of 39 buildings.
The government alleged that Trump's corporation quoted different rental terms and conditions and made false "no vacancy" statements to African Americans for apartments they managed in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.
Representing Trump, Cohn unsucessfully filed a countersuit against the government for $100 million, asserting that the charges were irresponsible and baseless.
Cohn also counted Rupert Murdoch among his clients, pressuring President Ronald Reagan repeatedly in furtherance of Murdoch's interests.
Cohn is credited with introducing Trump and Murdoch in the mid-1970s, marking the beginning of what was to be a deep and pivotal association between them.