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Sen. Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn

On the front page of The New York Times there’s an article by Jonathan Mahler and Matt Flegenheimer titled “McCarthy Aide Helped Shape Young Trump,” about how Roy Cohn, who served as a lawyer for Senator Joseph McCarthy, one of our nation’s most notorious demagogues, later assisted the career path of our more recent notorious demagogue, Donald J. Trump. Sometimes history can be so enlightening; Roy Cohn and Donald Trump, a match made in hell.

For the better part of a year columnists have been comparing Trump’s demagogic ways to those of Joseph McCarthy; now journalists are fleshing out the tight personal and professional friendship Trump had with McCarthy’s attack dog Cohn. Trump’s warm relationship with Cohn puts the whole “demagoguery” thing in a new historical perspective.

A more obscure story from Cohn’s days as McCarthy’s henchman is that by 1954 he had become so toxic he played a pivotal role (though unintended) in the scandal that finally brought McCarthy down. It was Cohn’s abuse of power that lit the fuse that eventually produced McCarthy’s spectacular implosion.

It’s interesting to note that Robert F. Kennedy’s first job after graduating from the University of Virginia Law School was as a counsel (working under Cohn) for the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that McCarthy chaired. The following is an excerpt where I discuss Cohn and McCarthy from my Kennedy biography, Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008):

“On the committee, Robert Kennedy watched as McCarthy turned over most of the investigative work to a 25-year-old Columbia Law School wünderkind, Roy Cohn, who had made a name for himself doggedly prosecuting the Rosenbergs, (who were executed on June 19, 1953). McCarthy put Cohn in command of the entire subcommittee staff of forty investigators and lawyers, including Kennedy. Cohn gave his closeted lover, G. David Schine, the 25-year-old hotel heir, a plum assignment on the committee. Schine’s only qualification was that he had written a tendentious anti-communist pamphlet, which was placed in the rooms of the hotels his family owned. Kennedy tried to warn McCarthy that he was making a big mistake by putting Cohn in charge, but the Senator enjoyed the national media attention Cohn’s sensational acts attracted. Kennedy detested Cohn; and Cohn once called Kennedy a “rich bitch” to his face. At one point, the two young men nearly came to blows after a Senate hearing.

“In April 1953, Cohn and Schine dashed in and out of ten European cities in a highly publicized junket, at government expense, to remove books from the stacks of the U.S. Information Service libraries they deemed “Communist.” The antics of Cohn and Schine, as Kennedy had predicted, ultimately led to McCarthy’s downfall. It began when the U.S. Army drafted Schine for military service, and Cohn used his position on the committee to seek preferential treatment for his special friend. Behind the scenes, McCarthy contacted the Army on Schine’s behalf saying he needed him on his staff, not in uniform. When the Army refused to back down, and would not give Schine preferential treatment, Cohn began investigating civilian personnel in the Department of the Army for possible Communist ties. In the spring and summer of 1954, Cohn’s attacks produced the legendary Army-McCarthy hearings.

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“The hearings took place in the Corinthian-columned Senate Caucus Room, (the same location where both John and Robert Kennedy would later announce their presidential bids). The proceedings lasted for fifty-seven days, with 187 hours of live television coverage. The nation was transfixed. At that time, Kennedy had the good fortune to have been recruited to serve as the counsel for the Democratic minority on the committee, and he kept a low profile. His new boss was Senator John McClellan of Arkansas, the ranking Democrat. Kennedy can be seen in footage of the hearings seated behind McClellan at the end of the long table on the Democratic side, occasionally passing a note to one of the Senators.

“Under the bright television klieg lights, with his typical dramatic flare, McCarthy began to smear the character of a young lawyer associated with the team representing the Army. His accusations led to the culminating event of the hearings when Joseph Welch, the courtly, soft-spoken special counsel for the Army, implored McCarthy: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” After Welch’s simple query, McCarthy’s game was up. He had stood up to the bullying Senator’s smear tactics, which he called “recklessly cruel.” The American public turned against McCarthy. On December 2, 1954, the full Senate voted to censure him, 67 to 22, for behavior “unbecoming” of a Senator. (Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy conveniently missed the vote against his family friend because he was recuperating in the hospital from back surgery).

“Senator McClellan assigned Robert Kennedy the task of writing the minority’s report. Kennedy impressed McClellan and other Senators with his dispassionate, detailed indictment of McCarthy’s overreaching. Although he had repudiated McCarthy’s tactics in print, and the Republicans had abandoned their one-time standard bearer, Kennedy did not end his personal friendship with the defeated Senator. He remained on good terms with McCarthy even as McCarthy suffered his precipitous decline, aggravated by sclerosis of the liver brought on from years of alcoholism. Kennedy often visited McCarthy at Bethesda Naval hospital. In May 1957, he was one of the few public figures to fly from Washington to attend McCarthy’s funeral at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church near Appleton, Wisconsin. He still believed that McCarthy’s gravest error had been remaining loyal to Cohn. Kennedy was unable or unwilling to grapple with the lasting damage that McCarthy had done to the careers of so many innocent people.” (Palermo, pp. 26-27)

Trump’s long association with Cohn, who was as shameless as Trump in his self-aggrandizement and arrogance, and so abused the legal profession that New York disbarred him, stands as one more indicator that Trump is unfit to serve in any public capacity, especially U.S. president.

Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo

Trump’s relationship with Cohn makes perfect sense. And along with his choice of Paul Manafort and Roger Stone to apply their dark arts in service of his presidential ambitions gives us proof once again of the old axiom that in the cesspool of America’s right-wing politics the biggest turds float to the top.

Joseph Palermo