Controversial lawyer Roy Cohn has been called a “madman,” and even “the personification of evil”—the last one by one of his relatives.
These are just two of the perspectives on Cohn, one of the seminal characters of the second half of the 20th Century, whose specter has outlived both the end of that millennium and his death, as explored in the new HBO documentary Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn, which premieres today.
While the documentary does little to dispute the fact that Cohn—who worked with both mob boss Tony Salerno and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy—was an evil and corrupt man, it does flesh out his character by exploring the contradictions between his public beliefs and private life.
Bully. Coward. Victim also draws parallels between Cohn and the man he mentored: President Donald Trump.
Director Ivy Meeropol is not exactly a neutral party: She is the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American citizens convicted of spying on the United States on behalf of the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Their prosecutor? A young and ambitious Cohn, barely out of law school in his early twenties, pushing for the death penalty.
But the Rosenberg trial is only the starting point of the documentary, which follows Cohn’s personal and professional life (there is often little distinction between the two) until his death from an AIDS-related illness in 1989.
“I am aware that people might think this is the Rosenberg revenge, which is what I didn’t want. My approach was to hear people’s stories and to give them the microphone,” Meeropol says. Among the talking heads in the documentary are attorney Alan Dershowitz, Cohn’s landlords, and men with whom Cohn had relationships.
The documentary focuses on the discrepancies in his life—in particular, the fact that Cohn was known to have homosexual relationships but actively fought against the life-extending drug AZT being made available to the public in the 1980s, as AIDS ravaged the gay community—going to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to document the gay lifestyle that he did very little to hide.
Meeropol says that Trump’s election renewed her interest in Cohn. Indeed New York magazine published a cover story on the man, Roy Cohn Was The Original Donald Trump, in 2018, and another less personal documentary, Where’s My Roy Cohn?, debuted last year.
“I was interested in him because of the family connection, and then I saw Angels in America, which planted a seed. But it was after Trump got elected that I thought he was an important figure to understand,” Meeropol says, adding, “I want people to understand how he helped get us to where we are. [When Trump was elected], I got this awful feeling of history repeating itself.”
Cohn’s lifelong philosophy seems to have been to never apologize for anything—a strategy that the president has adopted throughout his public life, and that propensity has only been more acute during the ongoing pandemic and protests over racial inequality.
“There’s a scene where [journalist] Peter Manso talks about Roy Cohn helping get Ronald Reagan elected, and he’s talking about how the truck drivers and the workers helped him win—the same people who helped Trump win—and he has complete contempt for them,” Meeropol says. “Both Trump and Cohn have total contempt for the average worker.”
She draws more parallels. “Cohn never paid any of his bills—down to his dry-cleaning bill—and Trump did the same. Trump uses the same kind of language as Cohn to foment hysteria and divide our society.”