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A Thirst for Power : Life and Times of Roy Cohn, the Flamboyant Lawyer Who Put Stamp on U.S. History

March 18, 1988|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Sooner or later, Roy Cohn's biographer said, still shaking his head after 18 months and 500 pages of grappling with this very issue, it comes down to this: How could a man "so morally repugnant" get away with it?

How could Cohn court, and win, the rich, the powerful, the influential? How did a 25-year-old lawyer rise to become general counsel to America's chief communist chaser, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, then survive to prosper long after McCarthy's fall? How did Cohn seduce the press? How did he become the darling of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover? How did his victims forgive his vitriol, not to mention vagaries such as blackmail? How could he insist up to his dying day on Aug. 2, 1986, that he was not suffering from AIDS? How did he succeed in breaking so many laws?

How, in short, did this boy from the Bronx put such a huge and ugly stamp on a large slice of recent American history?

Mystified and Fascinated

Nicholas von Hoffman, journalist, columnist, novelist, was left both mystified and fascinated by the subject of "Citizen Cohn" (Doubleday, $19.95), his just-released biography of the flamboyant lawyer and deal maker.

"There certainly is no easy answer," Von Hoffman said of Cohn's amazing ability to peddle and barter influence while flouting social convention.

"He was a whack," Von Hoffman said. "A dangerous whack, but a whack."

But in immersing himself in the daily and dirty details of Cohn's 59-year life, Von Hoffman came to see his subject as a "social isotope" through which "we could look at some very important social functions: politics, the courts, the media, money, celebrity."

Reviled and revered, feared and flattered, Cohn "was everywhere," working his way through "a huge national intestine," Von Hoffman said, that in its contractions, expansions and peristalsis mirrored the worst of society's own bodily functions.

"It was not pleasant," Von Hoffman added. In fact, researching Cohn's life was once again proof, in Von Hoffman's view, of "that old Washington bromide, never tell a child how they make laws or sausages."

Or, as Steven Brill, editor in chief of the American Lawyer and a longtime critic of Cohn has said, Roy Cohn was like an automobile accident, the kind that makes rubberneckers stop and stare. "People are drawn to Roy Cohn that way," Brill told Von Hoffman.

Cohn's craving for celebrity, according to Von Hoffman, was of drug-addict proportions. As a result, many people knew vaguely who he was without knowing fully what he had done. Those who were of age in 1950 would remember strongly the workings of the McCarthy committee, in which Cohn, as chief counsel, was the man who routinely asked witnesses, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party." Younger people would recognize Cohn from the pages of People magazine: a regular at Studio 54, the frequent dinner companion of Barbara Walters, a guest at the White House, the lawyer of rich and famous divorcees.

"And yet you see his legacy in your purse and you see it in your wallet in the ID cards we all carry," Von Hoffman said. Though dramatically inept at catching communists--"the ones they identified, everyone knew," Von Hoffman said--Cohn and his cronies "built the national security state as we know it today."

"Roy's justification for what they did over time and at the time was that they had to warn America that steps had to be taken against infiltration," Von Hoffman said.

"Ultimately they prevailed. That became the hallmark of America. They were able to persuade the world, that is, the important American public, that all of these measures had to be taken not on an emergency basis, but institutionalized into our society. Whether in drug tests or lie detection, these men really ushered in these practices."

And even for McCarthy's own ultimate crashing ignominy at the hands of Boston attorney Joseph Welch, "it was not as though the underlying McCarthy message was repudiated," Von Hoffman said.

"We started with concerns in 1945 over expanding Russian hegemony and we ended up with Roy Cohn and Joe McCarthy. Interestingly enough," he went on, "if you look at the Iran-Contra hearings, that kind of rhetoric still persists in American public life. You still have these men going, 'Well, I was braver than you were.' "

A longtime veteran of Washington journalism, Von Hoffman had only passing interest in Cohn when 1 1/2 years ago an associate in his literary agent Ginger Barber's office suggested he write Cohn's biography. Soon he found himself rising to the challenge: Could he write a biography about someone for whom he had so little respect, someone who had made a career, and a life, out of trading on venality? Could he unjumble his own confusion about the era, information "which we have absorbed that, while colorful, is not correct?"

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