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My father and the SOBs
Ed Reich hated bullies.
My father called himself a liberal Republican in the days when such creatures still roamed the earth. He voted for Thomas Dewey in 1948 (canceling my mother’s vote for Harry Truman) and then for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 (canceling my mother’s votes for Adlai Stevenson), and he thought highly of New York’s Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller, and its Republican senator, Jacob Javits — neither of whom would last a nanosecond in today’s GOP.
But Ed Reich could not abide political bullies. He gave up on the Republican Party when Nixon became president. He would have detested Trump. (My father died in 2016, two weeks before his 102nd birthday, and nine months before Trump was elected.)
Ed thought anyone who had to bully someone else to feel good about himself was despicable. If they did their bullying through politics, they were doubly despicable. In his mind, political bullying had led to the Holocaust.
In 1947, Ed moved us from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to a small town some 60 miles north of New York City called South Salem, to be within driving distance of his two women’s clothing stores, in Norwalk, Connecticut, and Peekskill, New York.
Soon after we moved in, a delegation of older men came by our house. When they knocked on the door, my mother thought they were a welcoming committee and opened it with a big “hello!” But when she saw the expressions on their faces, she became alarmed.
She invited them into the living room and asked if they’d like coffee. They declined.
My father greeted them stiffly, suggesting they sit down. They did not.
“What’s this about?” he asked. “What’s happened? Is there a problem?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Reich,” one of them spoke gravely, “we’ve come to inform you that South Salem is a Christian community.”
There was a long pause. I could see my father redden.
“So, we’re not welcome here?” His voice was tight.
“Legally, you have a right to be here, of course,” the speaker said. (New York state had just enacted a law prohibiting homeowners from including “restrictive covenants” in their deeds that barred sales to “Negroes or Hebrews.”) “But we don’t think you and your family will be happy here.”
“Thank you for coming by,” my father said flatly, opening the front door for them. Then he exploded: “Now get the hell out of my house!”
That was the day Ed Reich decided we’d stay put in South Salem forever. “I showed those sons of bitches,” he said some years later.
“Son of a bitch” was the worst epithet Ed could hurl at someone. It burst out of him like a volcanic eruption. For many years, I didn’t know it contained separate English words, including a term many would find offensive today. To my young ears it was one word — sonofaBITCH — that might have been Russian or Yiddish, but whatever language it was, it was huge and frightening.
WISCONSIN SENATOR JOE McCARTHY HAD A SPECIAL PLACE in Ed Reich’s pantheon of horrible people. McCarthy didn’t just bully those he claimed were members of the Communist Party. He attacked them with malice. McCarthy ridiculed the “pitiful squealing” of “those egg-sucking phony liberals” who “would hold sacrosanct those Communists and queers.”
Every time McCarthy’s image came across the six-inch screen of the Magnavox television in our living room, my father would shout “son-of-a-BITCH” so loudly it made me shudder.
McCarthyism was the byproduct of the Republican Party’s postwar effort to eradicate the New Deal by linking it to communism. The GOP had portrayed the midterm election of 1946 as a “battle between Republicanism and communism.” The Republican National Committee chairman claimed that the federal bureaucracy was filled with “pink puppets.”
Southern segregationist Democrats joined in the red baiting. Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo, a Klansman who had filibustered to block anti-lynching legislation, described multiracial labor unions’ advocacy for civil rights as the work of “northern communists.” Representative John Elliott Rankin, a racist and antisemitic Mississippi Democrat who helped establish the House Un-American Activities Committee, called the CIO’s southern organizing campaign “a communist plot” and charged it would give more voting rights to Black people. “We’re asleep at the switch,” he warned. “They’re taking over this country; we’ve got to stop them if we want this country.”
The tactic was temporarily successful. In the 1946 midterms, Democrats lost control of both the Senate and the House. Wisconsin ended its era of progressive Republican La Follettes and sent Joe McCarthy to the Senate. California replaced New Dealer Jerry Voorhis with a young Republican lawyer who had already figured out how to use red baiting as a political tool. His name was Richard Nixon.
In December 1946, at the founding convention of the Progressive Citizens of America, FDR’s former vice president Henry Wallace called the red scare a tool used by the most powerful economic forces in America and warned America not to give in to it. “We shall … repel all the attacks of the plutocrats and monopolists who will brand us as Reds,” he said, adding:
“If it is traitorous to believe in peace — we are traitors. If it is communistic to believe in prosperity for all — we are communists. If it is unAmerican to believe in freedom from monopolistic dictation — we are unAmerican. We are more American than the neo-fascists who attack us. The more we are attacked the more likely we are to succeed, provided we are ready and willing to counterattack.”
But there was no counterattack. The red baiting escalated, encouraged by J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI.
President Truman succumbed to the mounting hysteria. On March 21, 1947, he signed Executive Order 9835, the “Loyalty Order.” It ushered in loyalty oaths and background checks and created the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations.
As the 1950 election approached, a Times headline announced that the “Left is Silent in Campaign.” Even the American Civil Liberties Union, whose roots lay in the Red Scare of the World War I era, was reluctant to take the lead in opposing the threat to civil liberties in the second Red Scare of the 1950s.
California Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas — dubbed the “Pink Lady” for her supposed communist sympathies — tried for the Senate in 1950. She survived a bitter primary battle only to be beaten in November by red-baiter Richard Nixon.
ON JUNE 9, 1954, I SAT AT MY FATHER’S SIDE ON OUR LIVING ROOM COUCH, watching the Army-McCarthy hearings. McCarthy had accused the U.S. Army of having poor security at a top-secret facility.
Joseph Welch, a private attorney, was representing the Army. McCarthy charged that one of Welch’s young staff attorneys was a communist. Such a charge was likely to end the young man’s career.
“Son-of-a-BITCH,” my father shouted. I hid my head.
As McCarthy continued his attack on Welch’s staff attorney, Welch broke in. “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.”
I was only eight years old, but I was spellbound.
McCarthy didn’t stop. “Son-of-a-BITCH!” Ed Reich shouted even more loudly. The earth seemed to shake.
At this point, Welch demanded that McCarthy listen to him. “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator,” he said. “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”
Almost overnight, McCarthy imploded. His national popularity evaporated. Three years later, censured by his Senate colleagues, ostracized by his party, and ignored by the press, McCarthy drank himself to death, a broken man at the age of 48.
During the Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy’s chief counsel was Roy Cohn. Cohn became one of America’s most notorious bullies.
Cohn had gained prominence as the Department of Justice attorney who successfully prosecuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage, leading to their execution in 1953. (Evidence made public decades after the execution confirmed that Julius was a spy, but that Ethel, while aware of her husband’s activities, was not.)
In public, Cohn was homophobic. Privately, he was gay at a time when being gay was a crime. A character in Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America describes him as “the polestar of human evil. The worst human being who ever lived … the most evil, twisted, vicious bastard ever to snort coke at Studio 54.” His bullying was particularly vicious, I think, because he was filled with self-loathing.
The Rosenberg trial brought the 24-year-old Cohn to the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, who convinced Joe McCarthy to hire Cohn as chief counsel for McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Cohn became known for his aggressive questioning of suspected communists.
My father thought Roy Cohn almost as despicable as Joe McCarthy. “Son-of-a BITCH!” my father shouted whenever Cohn’s name was in the news.
After McCarthy’s downfall, it was assumed that Cohn’s career was also over. Yet Cohn reinvented himself as a power broker in New York. Despite scandals and indictments, along with accusations of tax evasion, bribery, and theft, Cohn survived.
COHN PROVED HIMSELF USEFUL TO A YOUNG REAL ESTATE DEVELOPER NAMED DONALD TRUMP. Fred Trump had started his son’s career by bringing him into the family business of renting apartments in Brooklyn and Queens.
Cohn established Donald in Manhattan by introducing him to New York’s social and political elite. Donald was undertaking several large construction projects in Manhattan and needed both a fixer and mentor. Cohn filled both roles, and along the way bequeathed to Trump a penchant for ruthless bullying, profane braggadocio, and opportunistic bigotry.
Like Trump, Cohn was utterly without principle. Like Trump, his priority was personal power that could be leveraged for wealth, influence, and celebrity.
In 1973, the Justice Department accused Trump Management Inc., its 27-year-old president, Donald, and chairman, Fred, of violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968 in 39 of his properties — alleging that the company quoted different rental terms and conditions to prospective tenants based on their race and made false “no vacancy” statements to Black people seeking to rent.
Trump employees had secretly marked the applications of Black people with codes, such as “C” for “colored,” according to accounts filed in federal court. The employees allegedly directed Black people away from buildings with mostly white tenants, steering them toward properties that had many Black tenants.
Representing the Trumps, Roy Cohn filed a countersuit against the government for $100 million, asserting that the charges were “irresponsible and baseless.” Although the countersuit was unsuccessful, Trump settled the charges out of court in 1975, asserting he was satisfied that the agreement did not “compel the Trump organization to accept persons on welfare as tenants unless as qualified as any other tenant.”
Three years later, when the Trump Organization was again in court for violating terms of the 1975 settlement, Cohn called the charges “nothing more than a rehash of complaints by a couple of planted malcontents.” Donald Trump denied the charges.
Cohn was also involved in the construction of Trump Tower, helping secure concrete during a citywide Teamster strike via a union leader linked to a mob boss.
At about this time, Cohn introduced Trump to another of Cohn’s clients, Rupert Murdoch.
During Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, Cohn helped another young man named Roger Stone.
As Stone later recounted, Cohn gave him a suitcase filled with money that Stone dropped off at the office of a lawyer influential in Liberal Party circles. “I paid his law firm. Legal fees. I don't know what he did for the money.” In fact, the money was used to get New York’s Liberal Party to nominate Illinois Congressman John Anderson — thereby splitting New York’s opposition to Reagan. It worked. Reagan carried the state with 46 percent of the vote. (Ed Reich voted for Jimmy Carter.)
In 1986, Cohn was disbarred by the New York State Bar for unethical conduct after attempting to defraud a dying client by forcing the client to sign a will amendment leaving Cohn his fortune. (Cohn died five weeks later from AIDS-related complications.)
In his first and best-known book, The Art of the Deal, Trump drew a distinction between integrity and loyalty. He preferred the latter.
For Trump, Roy Cohn exemplified loyalty. Trump compared Cohn to “all the hundreds of ‘respectable’ guys who make careers out of boasting about their uncompromising integrity but have absolutely no loyalty ... What I liked most about Roy Cohn was that he would do just the opposite.”
Ed Reich would vehemently disagree.