Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Wrath of Cohn, Part 2

leave a comment »

In the June 8, 1992 issue of The New Republic, the journalist Carl Bernstein published a long essay titled “The Idiot Culture.” Twenty years had passed since Watergate, which had been followed by what Bernstein called “a strange frenzy of self-congratulation and defensiveness” on the part of the press about how it had handled the story. Bernstein felt that the latter was more justified than the former, and he spent four pages decrying what he saw as an increasing obsession within the media with celebrity, gossip, and the “sewer” of political discourse. He began by noting that the investigation by the Washington Post was based on the unglamorous work of knocking on doors and tracking down witnesses, far from the obvious centers of power, and that the Nixon administration’s response was “to make the conduct of the press the issue in Watergate, instead of the conduct of the president and his men” and to dismiss the Post as “a fountain of misinformation.” Bernstein observed that both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush had displayed a Nixonian contempt for the press, but the media itself hadn’t gone out of its way to redeem itself, either. And he reserved his harshest words for what he saw as the nadir of celebrity culture:

Last month Ivana Trump, perhaps the single greatest creation of the idiot culture, a tabloid artifact if ever there was one, appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. On the cover, that is, of Condé Nast’s flagship magazine, the same Condé Nast/Newhouse/Random House whose executives will yield to nobody in their solemnity about their profession, who will tell you long into the night how seriously in touch with American culture they are, how serious they are about the truth.

By calling Ivana Trump “the single greatest creation of the idiot culture,” Bernstein pulled off the rare trick of managing to seem both eerily prescient and oddly shortsighted at the exact same time. In fact, his article, which was published a quarter of a century ago, returned repeatedly to the figure of Donald Trump. As an example of the media’s increasing emphasis on titillation, he cited the question that Diane Sawyer asked Marla Maples, Trump’s girlfriend at the time, on ABC News: “All right, was it really the best sex you ever had?” He also lamented: “On the day that Nelson Mandela returned to Soweto and the allies of World War II agreed to the unification of Germany, the front pages of many ‘responsible’ newspapers were devoted to the divorce of Donald and Ivana Trump.” To be fair, though, he did sound an important warning:

Now the apotheosis of this talk-show culture is before us…A candidate created and sustained by television…whose willingness to bluster and pose is far less in tune with the workings of liberal democracy than with the sumo-pundits of The McLaughlin Group, a candidate whose only substantive proposal is to replace representative democracy with a live TV talk show for the entire nation. And this candidate, who has dismissively deflected all media scrutiny with shameless assertions of his own ignorance, now leads both parties’ candidates in the polls in several major states.

He was speaking, of course, of Ross Perot. And while it’s easy to smile at a time when the worst of political television was The McLaughlin Group, it’s also a reminder of how little has changed, on the anniversary of the election of the man whom Bernstein has called “dangerous beyond any modern presidency.” (I also can’t resist pointing out that the Ivana Trump cover of Vanity Fair included this headline in the lower right corner: “Hilary Clinton: Will She Get to the White House With or Without Him?” And this was half a year before Bill Clinton was even elected president.)

Yet it’s the “Condé Nast/Newhouse/Random House” nexus that fascinates and troubles me the most. In the biography Newhouse, Thomas Maier quotes an unnamed source who worked on The Art of the Deal, which Si Newhouse aggressively packaged for the protégé of his friend Roy Cohn: “It’s obvious that this book was like Vanity Fair, the preeminent example of a certain instinct that Si has for a kind of glamour and power and public presence. It’s like Trump was a kind of shadow for him, in the sense that Si is so shy and so bumbling with words and so uncomfortable in social situations. I think his attraction to Trump was that he was so much his opposite. So out there, so aggressive, so full of himself.” More pragmatically, Trump was also a major advertiser. Maier quotes the editor Tina Brown, speaking way back in 1986: “If you were producing a funny magazine, you’d have to go for people like Trump…[But] there is also that awful commercial fact that you can’t make fun of Calvin Klein, Donald Trump, and Tiffany.” And this wasn’t just theoretical. Maier writes:

Those who were truly powerful in its world were granted immunity from any real journalistic scrutiny. When Donald Trump was a high-flying entrepreneur, he learned that Vanity Fair was preparing a short item about how the doorknobs were falling off in Trump Tower. Shortly after this journalistic enterprise was launched, however, Brown received a call from Si Newhouse, who had gotten a call from Trump himself…Newhouse was not going to let Trump’s advertising cease because of some silly little item. (Only after he suffered a huge financial loss in the 1990s did the magazine dare to examine Trump in any critical way.)

Given the vast reach of Newhouse’s media empire, this is truly frightening. And it’s hard not to see the hand of Roy Cohn, whose fifty-second birthday in 1979 seems to have been the moment when Newhouse and Trump first found themselves in the same room. “More than anyone else outside the direct kinship of blood,” Maier writes, “Cohn seemed to hold the keys to Si Newhouse’s world.” Cohn prided himself on being a power broker, and he eagerly used Newhouse’s publications to reward his patrons and punish his enemies. (There were also more tangible compensations. According to Maier, Sam Newhouse, Sr. once wrote Cohn a check for $250,000 to get him out of a financial jam, much as Si would later do, at Cohn’s request, for Norman Mailer.) And this intimacy was expressed in public in ways that must have seemed inexplicable to ordinary readers. On April 3, 1983, Cohn appeared on the cover of Newhouse’s Parade, which had the highest circulation of any magazine in the world, with a story titled “You Can Beat the IRS.” Cohn spent much of the article mocking the accusations of tax evasion that had been filed against him, and he offered tips about keeping your financial information private that were dubious even at the time:

Keep one step ahead of them: If there is a problem, change bank accounts so they can’t grab your funds by knowing from your records where you bank. If they get canceled checks and information from your bank, they will be in a position to know much more about your life than is acceptable.

And this was just a dry run. Cohn was serving as a placeholder, first for his patron, then for his ultimate pupil. Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at how Cohn and Newhouse are part of a direct line that connects Reagan to Trump, and what this means for us today.

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2017 at 8:29 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: