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A Generation After His Death, Roy Cohn’s Legacy Lives On

A revival of ‘Angels in America’ shows the archetypal fixer’s continued relevance.

April 27, 2018

Even next month when Iago begins to set his malicious traps in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of Othello, the most loathsome, yet compelling, villain on the Manhattan stage will remain a volcanic lawyer fighting disbarment. Nathan Lane’s portrayal of a dying Roy Cohn in the revival of Angels in America offers a fascinating meditation on the nature of evil in contemporary society.

Tony Kushner wrote the searing two-part drama (running nearly eight hours on stage) at the height of the early 1990s AIDS crisis. But the 25th anniversary production does not feel dated—in part because of Cohn’s enduring role as a mentor and life model for Donald Trump. The 45th president is never mentioned by name—nor are there winking allusions—but it is easy to hear echoes of Trump every time Cohn/Lane speaks in a harsh outer-borough New York accent.

A Trumpian moment comes when Cohn’s long-time doctor tells his patient (a closeted homosexual) that he has been stricken with AIDS. Cohn’s response: He threatens to ruin his doctor with a cascade of nuisance lawsuits if he ever mentions the word “AIDS” in his presence again. Cohn defiantly insists that his disease is liver cancer—a medical opinion that convinces no one. But like Trump in matters large and small, Cohn’s mendacity was an act performed for an audience of one—himself.

What is memorable about Cohn on stage is more than just the aggression and the torrent of lies.  Throughout the play, Cohn manipulates the legal system with brio, cutting corners like a five-year-old with his first pair of scissors. It is not that Cohn lost his moral compass, but rather that the former Joe McCarthy henchman never had one.

Cohn revels in recalling his daily ex parte conversations with the judge who sent Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair. He also dangles a top job in the Reagan Justice Department before a protégé accompanied by one condition—that the young lawyer would use his new-found power to exact legal revenge on Cohn’s enemies. In Cohn’s eyes, the legal system exists for only one reason: his personal benefit.

Angels in America is true to the broad outlines of Cohn’s actual career, though it is emotionally different to see him on stage rather than to read about his celebrity-obsessed life in biographies like Citizen Cohn by the late Nicholas Von Hoffman. As Cohn lies dying in a private hospital room attended by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, Kushner allows him to express the motivation that guided him through his repugnant life. “After I die they’ll say it was for the money and the headlines,” Cohn says. “But it’s never the money. It’s the moxie that counts.”

It is a haunting revelation—one that partly explains Trump. Kushner appears to be saying that what powered Cohn was evil as a life force, that the disrespect for truth, honor and the law was his way of asserting himself in a callous and unfeeling world. Think of Trump’s desperation to escape the shadow of his father’s real-estate empire, which mostly consisted of walk-up apartments in Queens. No recent story about Trump is more revealing than Jonathan Greenberg’s tale in the Washington Post of the jaw-dropping lies that Trump told in the 1980s to claw his way onto the Forbes magazine list of the richest Americans.

Even as darkness descends, Cohn in Angels in America never surrenders. Despite the frustrations of a basic hospital phone that does not allow him to put anyone on hold, Cohn retains enough political juice to get into an early clinical trial for the pioneering AIDS drug AZT. At the same time, Cohn is equally obsessed with clinging to his law license. As a fixer with his tentacles into everything, Cohn would have retained most of his power even if he were disbarred—as he was just days before he died in 1986. But, in Cohn’s mind, the license to practice law gives him moral legitimacy. The closest parallel is La Rochefoucauld’s 17th century maxim that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.

Kushner’s original fascination with Roy Cohn was undoubtedly linked to his gay-denying persona and his close ties to a Reagan administration that ignored AIDS until the plague was out of control. In the somewhat confusing cosmology that undergirds the play, God abandoned heaven and earth shortly before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, leaving the angels in despair and evil unchecked.

But even in his bleakest moments, Tony Kushner could not have imagined in the early 1990s that Roy Cohn’s legacy would have been the presidency of Donald Trump and his current contempt for the legal system.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.


(Photo: Wikimedia)