Retro novel and film shed light on Trump era

September 5, 2018

‘Grifter’ is a much favored term among President Trump’s critics for the tawdry crew that the commander in chief has assembled to operate or profit from the operations of the federal government. Commonly used to describe those who cheat others out of money, the associated words are chiselers, defrauders, gougers, scammers, swindlers, and flim-flam men.

 

After less than two years in office, space prevents a full description of those in or already or out of Trump’s orbit to whom this applies, but as Roy Hoope’s Our Man in Washington, a somewhat neglected 2000 fictional telling of the Warren G. Harding administration of the 1920s makes clear, it’s not the first grifter invasion of Washington, D.C.

 Cartoonist Clifford Berryman's contemporary take on Teapot Dome

(Library of Congress)

 

Harding died in office just as the scandals were exploding, generally featuring bribery, unexplained deaths and graft on a lavish scale. The best known is the ‘Teapot Dome,’ bribery case in which Secretary of the Interior Albert Bacon Fall leased Navy oil reserves in Wyoming to private companies without competitive bidding. Fall became the first presidential cabinet member to go to prison. The machinations of current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke with western public lands suggest kinship with his illustrious predecessor.

 

In the novel, H.L. Mencken, probably the best known political commentator of the day and his colleague, the later popular novelist James Cain set off for Washington to suss out what is going on in the capital, using the cover story that Mencken is a bootlegger who wants to buy government liquor held in warehouses at the height of prohibition, yet another great opportunity for insiders to bag bribe money.

 

In Hoope’s telling, the undercover reporting of the two is hilariously inept, since Mencken can’t resist unloading his distinctive philosophy on whoever will listen, not exactly what one would expect from a backwoods Pennsylvania bootlegger.

 

As it turns out, with a few contacts, the story of wide open corruption pretty much falls in their lap, with various parties hoping to save their skin proving quite willing to dish about whatever scandal they knew the most about. In fact Gaston B. Means, a sinister fixer and perhaps more than a little smarter than Trump’s former fixer, Michael Cohen, is quite willing to fill Mencken in, face-to-face.

 

“Means has gone too far in some of his operations [said Mencken] and some lawyers in the Justice Department want to bring him to trial. Daugherty [U.S. Attorney General] says he can’t defend him and Means is threatening to blow the lid off everything if Daugherty doesn’t get the Justice Department to drop the case as he has done for so many others. I think Means is trying to let everyone know that if he goes to jail, everyone goes with him.”

 

Does that sound contemporary? Sure does to me.  

 

So where did President Donald J. Trump get that unique style playing out on a news channel near you? Part of it was clearly from being a rich kid who learned early that it wasn’t necessary to play by the rules. And then there were adult influencers who taught a young man further life lessons. The film Citizen Cohn, HBO Films, 1992, starring James Woods and Joe Don Baker, takes a look at attorney Roy Cohn, who counseled first Wisconsin’s Senator Joseph McCarthy on a scruple free approach to life and the political benefits of chasing communists, real and invented and then went on to serve as Trump’s mentor and personal attorney for many years.

 

Cohn died of AIDS in 1986, but he has been sorely missed by President Trump during the twists and turns of the Russia interference investigation by Robert Mueller. "Where's my Roy Cohn?" Trump howled plaintively to the New York Times earlier this year.

 

The movie itself is quite compelling, particularly if the viewer is somewhat familiar with the red hunts orchestrated by such youthful and utterly ruthless advisors as Roy Cohn against and with the Washington, D.C. establishment of that day. Various other players include FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and U.S. Army counsel Joseph Welch.

 

Cohn’s homosexuality is a thread throughout his career and the movie and yet he was quite prepared to use this or any other alleged moral failing to persecute or destroy those he pursued.

 

Cohn got his entrée to the New York establishment as the pampered and indulged son of a prominent liberal judge, who came to despise

 

Cohn advises Sen. Joe McCarthy during the near career-

ending (for McCarthy) Army-McCarthy hearings. (AP)

 

him along with most of those he came in contact during his high profile career. As the movie plays out, Cohn is dying of AIDs in a hospital, though predictably he denies having any disease at all. In his delusions, the cast of those he attacked and destroyed come to visit, starting with convicted atomic secrets spy Ethel Rosenberg whose execution by electric chair (along with husband Julius) Cohn was instrumental in winning. This sensational outcome kicked his career into high gear and led to his connection with Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy though McCarthy’s excesses and personal failings led to his censure by the Senate. For Cohn, the endgame was the destruction of his career and disbarment from his chosen profession. For Trump the endgame may be rolling into place right now.

 

Melania Trump said during the campaign that "when you attack Donald, he will punch back 10 times harder." And as the movie strongly suggests, that’s what Roy Cohn taught Trump.

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