Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. She founded the true crime site The Blotter, and is the host of its weekly podcast, The Blotter Presents. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime on TV.
At first glance, Roy Cohn might seem somewhat quaint now — a relic of another age, like Walter Winchell or men always wearing hats. Sure, you hear his name every now and then; he figures heavily in Tony Kushner's legendary Angels In America, and he played a prominent role in Donald Trump's baffling rise. But the hysterical political witch hunts that made Cohn's name in the middle of the last century happened so long ago, and feel so obviously (if you'll forgive the pun) trumped up and ridiculous, that it might be hard for some viewers to take it seriously when various talking-heads in HBO's Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story Of Roy Cohn describe Cohn, without irony, as evil. Maybe he was, you say — but we'd never fall for that kind of blatant power-grab nowadays, so what does Roy Cohn have to do with us here in 2020?
Bromides about those who don't remember history being doomed to repeat it aside, just about everything about Cohn is pertinent to the situation we find ourselves in as this annus horribilis drags on. Cohn is of particular interest to Bully's director, Ivy Meeropol, because Meeropol is Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's granddaughter. (Orphaned as children after the execution of their parents, Ivy's father and his brother took the last name of the family who adopted them.) At just 23, Roy Cohn successfully leveraged the anti-Communist frenzy of the 1950s, created a case against both Rosenbergs using Ethel's naive brother, and sent the couple to the electric chair — not because he believed passionately in the defense of American secrets, or the prosecution of those who betrayed those secrets, but because, as Alan Dershowitz ruefully notes on-camera, "He saw this as a stepping-stone to glory. And it worked."
Dershowitz notes later in Bully that Cohn seldom dissembled about having massaged the evidence against the Rosenbergs, claiming that while he'd framed them, they were still guilty. The conventional wisdom on the Rosenbergs at this juncture is that, while Julius was working for the Soviet Union, Ethel had nothing to do with any spy activity, and that judicial misconduct was rampant throughout the case — that's just one way in which Bully is relevant to us today, when as a country we're struggling with the corruption, racial injustice, and political wrangling that permeate the criminal "justice" system. But another way looms even larger: Cohn's mentoring of Donald J. Trump.
Trump's apparent imperviousness to failure and criticism — as a businessman, he's at best a bumbling blowhard whose only true "talent" is self-promotion, and yet, here we all are — is irritatingly familiar to those of us who've lived in the tri-state area all our lives. We've been asking ourselves why we have known who this guy is since Carter was president, and Trump's ability to maintain a credible posture of power and influence despite ongoing boorishness and bankruptcies was derived, at least in the 1980s, directly from Cohn — and not just the appearance of success, either. During a concrete-workers' strike, New York City construction ground to a halt... except for Trump Tower, which proceeded thanks to Trump's in with Cohn, and Cohn's in with the Mafia-controlled unions. But Trump's facility for acting as though he's never failed or faltered comes straight from Cohn's playbook. Cohn was more or less the architect of the McCarthy hearings, but when the backlash to that performative anti-Communist persecution hit, it hit Joseph McCarthy, not Cohn. Cohn brushed it off and moved into a different set of shadows.
Bully does an excellent job highlighting the ways Cohn is an exact model for Donald Trump's various amoral behaviors, because Cohn seemed to have no real interest in politics, or in other people, except as a means to ends. His goals were attention and power for their own sakes. Cohn didn't care who got ground up in the gears of his machinations, or how far he had to bend the rules. He only saw what was in it for himself. Sound familiar? Cohn drew a road map to authoritarian power for his strangely-coiffed protégé, and it's been followed to the letter: get key members of the media in your pocket, never admit wrongdoing, distract from your worst failures by going on the offense. Every time the president releases a tweetstorm, somewhere, Roy Cohn is smiling smugly.
Bully isn't a cheery sit overall, although national treasure John Waters appears in the second half to remember how Roy Cohn almost ruined Provincetown for him, which helps. (That the documentary is airing during Pride Month is an interesting choice for HBO; Cohn's sexual orientation seemed to be an open secret, but it was still a secret... and yet the film takes its title verbatim from Cohn's panel on the AIDS quilt.) Still, the documentary is well made, compelling, and instructive as to how a malignancy like Cohn comes to wield unchecked power, and what, if anything, we can do to get that kind of authoritarianism in remission. It may not seem like a "traditional" work of true crime, but Cohn committed literal crimes, as well as figurative ones against trust, justice, and the Constitution. We may not have remembered him properly, leaving us we're doomed to repeat him — but perhaps, with the help of Bully, we can learn enough to avoid a third go-round.
Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story Of Roy Cohn premieres on HBO tonight at 9:00 PM ET
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.