Life Lessons with Roy Cohn

Above alive is what? Dead. In the clouds.

[New York, 1985. In a five-star restaurant ROY COHN, a powerful lawyer and MARTIN HELLER, a Reagan Administration Justice Department flackman, are trying to convince JOE PORTER, chief clerk for a Federal Appeals Court Justice, to accept a position in the U.S. Justice Department.]

ROY: (Takes a letter from his suit pocket, hands it to Joe) Here. Fuck it. Came today. Read.

(Joe reads the letter)

JOE: Roy, this is terrible.

ROY: New York State Bar Administration, Martin. They’re going to try to disbar me.

MARTIN: Oh, my.

JOE: Why?

ROY: Why, Martin?

MARTIN: Revenge.

ROY: The whole establishment. Their little rules, because I know no rules. Because I don’t see the law as a dead and arbitrary collection of antiquated dictums. “Thou shall, thou shall not.” Because I know the law is a pliable, breathing, sweating organ.  Because, because…

MARTIN: Because he borrowed $500,000 from one of his clients.

ROY: There’s that.

MARTIN: And he forgot to return it.

JOE: Roy, that’s…You borrowed money from a client?

ROY: I’m deeply ashamed.

JOE: Roy, you know how much I admire you. I know you have your unorthodox ways but I’m sure you did what you thought you needed to do at the time. And I have faith that –

ROY: Not so damp, please. I’ll deny it was a loan. She has no paperwork. Can’t prove a fucking thing.

JOE: I really appreciate your telling me this, and I’ll do whatever I can to help.

ROY: I’ll tell you what you can do. I’m about to be tried, Joe, by a jury that is not a jury of my peers. This disbarment committee, genteel gentlemen, Brahmin lawyers, country-club men, I offend them. To these men I’m what, Martin? What would you say? Some sort of filthy little Jewish troll?

MARTIN HELLER: Well, I wouldn’t go so far as that –

ROY: I would. They’re very fancy lawyers, these disbarment committee lawyers, fancy lawyers with fancy corporate clients and complicated cases. Antitrust suits. Deregulation. Environmental control.  Complex cases like these need Justice Department cooperation like flowers need the sun. Wouldn’t you say that was an accurate assessment, Martin?

MARTIN: (clears throat uneasily) I’m not here, Roy. I’m not hearing any of this.

ROY: No, of course you’re not. Without the light of the sun, Joseph, these cases, and the fancy lawyers who represent them, will wither and die. A well-placed friend, someone in the Justice Department, say, can turn off the sun. Cast a deep shadow on my behalf. Make them shiver in the cold. If they overstep. They would fear that.


JOE: Roy. I don’t understand.

ROY: You do.


JOE: You’re not asking me to…

ROY: Sssshhhh. Careful.

JOE: Even if I said yes to the job, it would be illegal to interfere. With the hearings. It’s unethical. No. I can’t.

ROY: “Un-ethical?” (to Martin) Would you excuse us a moment, please?

MARTIN: Excuse you?

ROY: Yeah, take a walk.

(Martin leaves)

ROY: “Unethical?” Are you trying to embarrass me in front of my friend?

JOE: Well, it is unethical, I can’t…

ROY: Boy, you are really something. What the fuck do you think this is, Sunday School?

JOE: No, but Roy this is…

ROY: This is gastric juices churning! This is enzymes and acids! This is intestinal is what this is!  Bowel movement and blood-red meat – this stinks! This is politics, Joe. This is the game of being alive. And you think you’re…What? Above that? Above alive is what? Dead. In the clouds. You’re on earth, goddammit! Plant a foot! Stay awhile!

From Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America (1991)

Photo: “Roy Cohn” (Al Pacino) in Mike Nichols’ 2003 film of Angels in America

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