Crucible

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By Scott Ross

Note: I realize this is only tangentially related to movies, but it’s pertinent nonetheless. 
Plus, it’s my blog, and I’ll post what I like on it.


Fear doesn’t travel well; just as it can warp judgment, its absence can diminish memory’s truth. What terrifies one generation is likely to bring only a puzzled smile to the next.” — Arthur Miller, Why I Wrote ‘The Crucible’: An Artist’s Answer to Politics (The New Yorker, October 21, 1996)

I suspect by now the world and its brother take as a given that Arthur Miller’s 1953 Salem witch-trial drama The Crucible was his very personal response to a similar ordeal, enacted on a much larger stage than that of four centuries earlier, and one to which the playwright was by a no means disinterested observer. Fewer perhaps will understand that in the character of the Salem farmer John Proctor — in life a good deal older than Miller’s protagonist — lay a means for the author to expiate his own private sins. But an increasing, and increasingly nervous, number of citizens can now see in this essential post-war tragedy a troubling reflection of the ironic tragicomedy currently on view, not merely in his or her own national theatre, but in the smaller studio across the pond. A farce, moreover, with potentially the gravest possible outcome if the curtain is not forcefully rung down on it, and soon.

Yet there is an additional parallel reading just now which not even Arthur Miller could have foreseen when he first researched and then wrote his play, one brought home to me in the starkest terms on sitting down recently with the 1996 movie of The Crucible.

You know the story, surely, or should, if you studied the play in high school or ever attended a little theatre production or encountered the script in college: How Abigail Williams, besotted with love for the married man who’d bedded her, was driven nearly mad with that hopeless love burning in an adolescent brain and the attendant repression of her Puritan community; how, discovered performing in a shamanistic midnight revel, she gave forth the lie that she had seen this and that good wife of Salem disporting with Satan; that her “confession” had within its contours a darker, more hidden, purpose, that of ridding herself of her hated rival, the wife of her erstwhile lover; how the lie, catching fire, prompted other terrified girls to join in her willful delusion; and how, an entire town turning on itself, the final victim must perforce be that same man so beloved of the originator of the lie.

Try as I might to ignore the sensation, I could not hold at bay an unpleasant frisson of instant, and queasy, identification each time Winona Ryder’s Abigail Williams took the screen. The shock of recognition which precipitated this was so profound that I had often while viewing the movie to force my mind away from the uncanny and disturbing parallel I saw in it to what used, in our school days, to be called “current events,” merely in order to savor the beautiful means by which the picture’s director, Nicholas Hytner (before and since the great stage and screen interpreter of Alan Bennett) captured Miller’s magnum opus; the often exquisite playing of the cast (and which, aside from Ryder included Daniel Day Lewis, Joan Allen, Bruce Davison, Charlayne Woodard, George Gaynes, Mary Pat Gleason, the splendid Ron Campbell and the magisterial Paul Scofield); the economy and grace with which Miller adapted, condensed (and in some ways improved upon) his masterwork; the sumptuous cinematography by Andrew Dunn; and the equally fulsome production design of Lilly Kilvert; all of which, taken together, rendered the production far more effective and moving than any mere reading or previous production of the play I’ve so far encountered.

It’s a heady thing, after all, to be gob-smocked so completely by such a perfect, unbidden historical analog to the present. I knew this girl, I thought — this selfish, foolish, unheeding, unthinking monster of a girl, whose lies, born of defeat and panic, unleashed a holocaust she lacked both the wit to foresee and the emotional health to be anything but indifferent to.

We all know her, for she is, like Abigail, so anxious to be known… and discussed, and debated about, and deified.

Abigail Williams is Hillary Clinton.



“…I was motivated in some great part by the paralysis that had set in among many liberals who, despite their discomfort with the inquisitors’ violations of civil rights, were fearful, and with good reason, of being identified as covert Communists if they should protest too strongly.” — Arthur Miller

November, 2016: Hillary Clinton’s campaign team, desperate to create for themselves, and for her, a self-justifying narrative to explain why “the most qualified candidate in American history” had lost the late (and seemingly endless) Presidential election to a buffoonish television game-show host, holds a meeting at which it is decided that, henceforth and forever, something called variously “Russian meddling,” “Russian hacking” and “Russian collusion” was to be the bogey of choice. Never mind that the losing candidate herself will go off script and, at every possible opportunity — practically every other week — and find someone new to blame for her deserved defeat by Donald J. Trump. Russia it was to be, and Russia it was to remain.

We need not rehearse here the actual reasons for that well-predicted loss, save to note that she was, with her rival, one of the two most hated candidates in American Presidential campaign history; a single vote against him was canceled out by another — if not indeed many others — against her.

No, I take that promise back. Let’s rehearse those reasons. They have bearing.

  • The loathing of many for the Clinton Foundation — correctly seen as a revolving-door scam dependent for its survival on one or the other of the Clintons being in office; its horrific betrayal of cash-strapped Haiti; and the shady uranium deal with the Russian Federation which (among other things) netted Bill a half-million dollars, allegedly for a single speech.
  • Hillary Clinton’s penchant, seemingly pathological, for lying, usually without necessity, the lies themselves nearly always easily disproved.
  • Her transparent hypocrisy: “I went down to Wall Street and told them, ‘Cut it out!’… which the transcripts of her speeches — not released by her — directly contradicts.
  • Her reactionary social beliefs: Against marriage equality… until the percentages of those for it reached that crucial 51%… Against abortion, which she deems a matter for “a woman, her family and her pastor” [emphasis mine] and which she asserts “should be rare, and I mean rare” [emphasis hers].
  • Her warmongering, both as Senator and as Secretary of State and including the disasters of Honduras and Haiti, and the mutation by the president she nominally served of three inherited wars into seven, presumably with her avid assistance.
  • The WikiLeaks revelation of the damning Podesta emails, instantly (and repeatedly) labeled “Russian meddling” when it is well-known, and well-documented, that Julian Assange received them from an un-named source inside the DNC.
  • Donna Brazile, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the clear rigging of the 2016 primaries by the DNC… which we now know was entirely controlled by the Hillary Clinton campaign… and which means, of course, by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
  • Bill: His deeply conservative tenets and acts, including NAFTA; turning much of America into a for-profit prison; his gutting of Welfare; and his utterly disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996 which sacrificed a free press — without which a true democracy cannot function — on the altar of corporate commerce; his womanizing and accused rapes; and his ex parte meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on that now infamous tarmac.
  • Her own deep psychopathology, revealed in her laughing uproariously at the horrendous torture-murder of a foreign leader (Gaddafi) and her serious (and repeated) questioning of why Assange could not simply be murdered by drone-strike.
  • Her willful ignoring of the prevailing economic woes experienced by half the nation.
  • Her braying declaration that single-payer, Medicare-style healthcare for all was a pipe-dream that was “never going to happen.”
  • Her willingness to means-test Social Security and to hand it over to her Wall Street pals who have, it is well known, been salivating for years over the prospect of getting their hands on our money.
  • Her sneering, dismissive stereotyping of voters whose ballots she desperately needed — both Trump supporters and progressives.
  • President Obama’s eight-year corporatist screwing of labor, the middle-class and working Americans, and his assertion that Clinton was his natural heir, implying her complicity in these matters, and that her election would mean more of the same.
  • Her staggeringly inept and egotistical campaigning style (And here, note that her official slogan was not “She’s with US” but “I’m with HER”); the equally arrogant manner with which her most vocal supporters demonized the progressive left with as much, on the one hand, indifference and, on the other, viciousness, as their goddess herself; their endless attacks on leftists on social media, much of it paid for; the incessant screaming of “Sexist!” at anyone who held reservations about her, even those who are themselves women or who campaigned for, or planned to vote for, Jill Stein (indeed, according to them, Stein herself was sexist for having the temerity, like Sanders, of thinking she had the right to run as a candidate); her supreme arrogance in not campaigning in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, states whose support she very much needed; and indeed, the overall conceit by which she presumed we owed her our votes, and that she therefore need not come to us for them.
  • The sense among many in the electorate — conservative, liberal and progressive — that a vote for Clinton was a vote for more war, more fiscal inequity, more lies and more corporatist/neoliberal/neocon policies. (And, as has often been noted, when Democrats run as Republicans, the actual Republican always wins.)
  • And, yes, those emails of hers, on that un-secured, un-encrypted, personal server; her refusal to turn said server over to the FBI; and James Comey’s corrupt and cynical refusal to prosecute her for something which, had anyone else committed it, would have resulted in that individual’s receiving a nearly automatic jail term.

That Clinton’s only serious primary rival was speaking to tens of thousands of enthusiastic supporters when she couldn’t fill a high-school gymnasium we will leave aside, for the moment, as we will the seemingly motiveless murder of the DNC staffer Seth Rich, the likeliest source of the WikiLeaks revelations. Because, of all the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s embarrassing defeat which bear on this essay, none is as important as that delineated in the third clause of the first bulleted paragraph above: Doing deals with Russia.

If the first rule of political expedience is not deflection, surely it must rank snugly within the top five. The Clinton team was cognizant of and, even after the election, still nervous about, Hillary and Bill’s reciprocal dealings with Vladimir Putin’s government for personal gain, and the corrupt manner in which the Clinton-controlled DNC shoved her down America’s collective throat. Solution: Deflect. It is Trump who is dealing with Russia! They “hacked” our elections! Trump is being blackmailed by Russia!

He’s a Putin-Puppet!

And so, if you doubt one word of what we’re saying, are you.



“…the politics of alien conspiracy soon dominated political discourse and bid fair to wipe out any other issue.” — Arthur Miller

However successful the Clinton team hoped its flagrant, Abigail Williams-like deflection might be, the immediate (and enduring) positive response to it must surely have dazed even them. Or perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps these cynics depended upon, and anticipated, the fervor of the equally cynical hacks in the corporate media — and, indeed, in the minds of Trump-haters and Clinton fanatics (often one and the same) which, as a predictable result of the 19-month election cycle, had become entirely un-hinged and utterly incapable of independent thought. Indeed, the scheme could only work with a figure as hated as Trump in the White House: Someone who inspires such fevered loathing that the mere fact of his presidency is enough to blow the mental fuses of Clinton idolaters.

Not that these types — known, in honor of their idol’s campaign slogan, by the rather perfect epithet “Withers” — have ever betrayed much acquaintance with rationality. But Trump-as-President creates such widespread cognitive dissonance among them that they cannot think, much less speak, coherently. Their obscenely well-compensated High Priestess in Derangement is a quondam Rhodes Scholar whose nightly billet has of late become the pulpit from which to extol such neoliberal shibboleths as hero-worship of the FBI and the CIA, the embrace of anyone seemingly opposed to Trump — no matter who, or how dubious or indeed anti-democratic — and war with a nuclear-armed nation as the best (really, only) means by which Trump can prove to her he is not Vladimir Putin’s personal kukla. More on this anon.

Had we anything like a free press, it would still plump for war, because that is its norm. (Gulf of Tonkin, anyone? Weapons of mass destruction?) Still, one would like to believe it might also, as once was its brief, perform at least a minimal amount of due diligence by way of investigatory journalism. That it would, instead of anointing a family as corrupt and venal as the Clintons, expose their duplicity.

I am speaking here not of the specious accusations and spurious, even libelous, claims by the right which have been so loonily over the top they have forced even those deeply skeptical of Hill-n-Bill into the bitter position of having to defend them, although I would argue that the more ludicrous of these attacks have redounded to the Clintons’ benefit so perfectly they might have been planned by that pair; Fox News has done more, in its way, to deify these two than even their usual lap-dogs in the press. I refer to the easily provable: Her pathological lying, his serial abuse of women, their pay-to-play machinations. But the corporate press, as with this former First Couple’s cynical donors, is invested in them, as it is with never,  if illuminating either at all, portraying labor or the left in anything but a negative light: The total Anglo-American blackout by the usual suspects in the news biz of Occupy Wall Street until the Asian and European press coverage shamed it into nominal (usually sneering) coverage is a good example, as is the subsequent repeat performance when Bernie Sanders was speaking to packed houses all over the nation yet, somehow, doing so into an electronic void. One listened in vain for any airing of either set of events on, for example, the once great, now wholly corporatized, NPR or its equally compromised British coeval the BBC.

I was reminded in 2016 of the 2004 Democratic primaries, during which Carol Moseley Braun and Dennis Kucinich constituted, separately and together, the ideal choice: A pair of candidates who speak passionately and articulately to the real needs and concerns of a nation — not for endless war but for economic reform and pay equity. Howard Dean too, in those salad days before he saw the corporate light and became an unconscionable shill, had some good ideas there, as did the once shining and now disgraced John Edwards. There were, altogether, ten potentials among the Democrats, yet the media informed us, sorrowfully, that it simply could not devote the necessary resources, either of employment or of money, to covering them all. Flash-forward twelve years, to 2016, with its 17 Republican primary candidates, every one of whose campaigns, regardless of personal loopiness, received from this same quarter a sufficiency (not to say a surfeit) of coverage. This is not to mention the plastering of Trump’s visage on the airwaves, to the tune of some two billion dollars’ worth of free advertising, including the sight of his empty podium… and a telephone number for making donations. Yet fewer than a half-dozen Democrats in 2004 somehow defeated the media’s resources. Who, having heard it, can ever forget the sound of Les Moonves giggling over how much money Trump was generating for CBS?

Their real money, of course, was on the establishment neocon candidate. How else explain why so little has been made by the corporate press of Clintons’ appalling arrogance in employing un-secured routers and devices for top-secret government communications, and in destroying her emails and the machines she used to send and receive them? How else justify the collective shrug given by the corporate media when the director of the Obama FBI and his minions altered an actionable charge of “gross negligence” against her to the wrist-slap of “extreme carelessness”? How else codify why the transparent rigging of the primaries — the crooked electronic votes (the actual, as opposed to fabricated, “hacking of our elections”) and the purging of voters from the rolls all over the country — by the DNC, an organization we have since learned was entirely under the control of Clinton herself? Woodward and Bernstein were working, initially and for some time, with a hell of lot less information in 1972.

But George Carlin said it best: It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it.



“The Soviet plot was the hub of a great wheel of causation; the plot justified the crushing of all nuance, all the shadings that a realistic judgment of reality requires.” — Arthur Miller

Those who have been deranged by the twin horrors of a campaign that lasted nearly half as long as an American President’s term in the White House and the specter in the Oval Office of the loathed and derided Donald J. Trump are now, in their pique, addicted to fresh promises that this new development, or that new indictment, or the other new “revelation,” will surely spell the end for his cynosure. And the corporate media feeds that addiction, daily raising their expectations by promising the last nail in Trump’s presidential coffin. It is an addiction that pounces on the merest scrap: The appropriately tawdry and meretricious “Steele Dossier”; the firing by Trump of this or that odious aide or National Security apparatchik; the indictment by the Special Prosecutor of a baker’s dozen of Russian trolls purchasing (the horror!) ten thousand dollars’ worth of seeming political ads on social media… after the election, please recall.

The Democratic Party has, of course, seized on this Wither-directed pique, declaring — after, one presumes one too many viewings of The Force Awakens — the emergence of something it calls “The Resistance” but which more impartial observers correctly deem “The McResistance.” For, as with the equally spurious “Tea Party” movement which came into existence only after a mixed-race Democrat took office, the adherents of this new “Resistance” were notably silent during eight years of corporatist Obama atrocities, not least including his more than doubling the existing wars and his stripping from the land of habeas corpus. But, unlike the Tea Partiers, who, whatever their true origin in the darkened boardrooms of Koch and ALEC, mobilized to effect a change, however dolorous, in their party, the McResistance does as it is told, donning pink caps here, massing against guns there, unable to see just how cannily (and pathetically easily) they are manipulated by the still-Clintonian DNC which robbed them of the best chance they had to defeat Trump — whose victory over their queen was predicted early and whose party rival was just as convincingly proved to be able to beat The Donald, had he been given the chance… and had he possessed the backbone to fight back against the vote-rigging and not caved so early, and so often.

But Irrational Trump Hatred is so high that it has overwhelmed the ability for critical thought. “Vote Blue, No Matter Who” means electing a Republican in all but name merely because he is not Roy Moore. It means further marginalizing all progressive comers. It means additional rigging of votes, such as during the recent Congressional election in Florida, where erstwhile DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz retained her seat by performing on a local level what her corrupt committee enacted on a national one mere months before: Robbing Tim Canova of votes and then destroying the contested ballots. Or take the March Illinois campaign, during which the progressive candidate Marie Newman not only saw her early lead over Republican-Lite Dan Lipinksi fall, but her ballot numbers actually go down, in real-time. 20 years ago, we were warned that the electronic voting systems being ramped up all over the land and administered by the right-wing Diebold Company, would surely benefit Republicans. Now, we understand, all too late, that they are also benefitting rightist neocon Democrats. Where is the outrage over this? Where the pussy-hat marchers? Too busy, one presumes, labeling any-and-everyone who disagrees with them “Putin Puppets” on Social media or over the “liberal” airways of MSNBC.

I mentioned Woodward and Bernstein in passing, above, but “Woodstein,” and Watergate, also have bearing on this essay, and on the general derangement Trump’s victory has unleashed. In Watergate, there was no Congressional investigation until evidence of a crime had come to light. This is a crucial element of a criminal inquiry: Investigators, knowing of a specific crime having been committed, then examine the evidence of that crime to determine guilt. They do not, except in a police state, go looking for a crime first. Since, as far as we can divine from the lack of evidence so far presented (and, trust me, if the various American entities gathered under that pretty little catch-all “security” had any evidence of “collusion,” they would release it) the basis on which the president is being investigated, in contradistinction of all previously understood and agreed upon understanding of jurisprudence, is that very lie cobbled up by Clinton’s campaign team. And the single most dismaying, and dispiriting, upshot of all this has been the avidity with which “liberals” have supported this judicial abuse, out of irrational hatred and plain pique.

The loss of such critical thinking skills (always presuming they existed to begin with) condemns the reactive and newly self-appointed legal experts to Pavlovian salivating over Trump’s “Russian collusion,” or his violation of a clause none of them had ever heard of before 2016 and most cannot properly pronounce, “emoluments” usually being spoken of as “emollients” — presumably relating to the illegal use of hand lotions. A progressive friend recently opined of Trump’s chicanery that he felt certain there was “a there there.” Well, yes — if you dig long enough, and deep enough, you’re bound to find something nefarious. That The Donald has gotten away with decades’ worth of shady business dealings and, on a lesser level, perpetual flummery, aided and abetted by the New York media’s slavering adulation of him, is well-known. Where were these would-be prosecutors then? Avidly devouring the latest New York Post story written by Trump about himself and copied more or less verbatim as “news” by hacks masquerading as journalists? Watching his long-running NBC game-show? Why do they only care now?

Further: That the immediate result of a Trump impeachment would be the installation as Commander-in-Chief of Vice President Pence seems not to have occurred to them. “Oh, we can control him” is the smug response, when one gets a response at all. As you have “controlled” Trump, by voting for nearly everyone he nominates and everything he wants? And, if he is so easily controlled, then why the tsouris?

How well these types would have sung in the Salem Town congregation.

The elevation by the McResistance of such oleaginous types as Comey, James Clapper and Robert Mueller, its unthinking embrace of the deep-state and the shadow government (and yes, even former CIA officials admit both exist), its indifference to the news that a record number of former military intelligence and ex-CIA operatives are running in the 2018 Democratic campaigns, its reactionary and chilling echoing of 1950s Red-baiting, and its refusal to accept that the much-discussed release by WikiLeaks of the Podesta emails was, as William Binney and Ray McGovern of VIPS (Veterans Intelligence Professionals for Sanity) have assured us, the work of someone inside the DNC using a USB data-stick, have led to the appalling if unsurprising intelligence that fully 85 per-cent of Americans now believe something called “Russian hacking” was responsible for Trump’s election rather than, as was the case, the bulk of American voters rejecting a candidate they deemed even worse. (Another old friend, who lived through the McCarthy scare, opined recently that even Henry Kissinger would be better as president than Trump. Henry Kissinger!)

Those still capable of rational thought, who have not allowed their disdain for The Donald to overwhelm their minds, understand that, after a year and a half of investigation, if there were anything to the many and varied charges of “collusion,” we would by now be awash in evidence. Sixteen months, and what are the results?

Thirteen Russians trolling for cyber-cash.

Nor does the new Red-Scare madness end at our borders. Across the pond, a Prime Minister beset on every side by the results of her own ineptness suddenly claims a pair of expatriated Russians living in Britain were “conclusively” poisoned by the Russians, on as little evidence as the Clinton team’s “Russia did it!” accusations — which is to say only their word on it. Other nations now are scrambling to deport Russian diplomats, on the word of Teresa May. International tensions, as they say in the news biz, are escalating, and there seems daily a greater chance that this spurious, un-proven (and, I daresay, unprovable) nonsense could eventuate in war with a nuclear-armed nation. Worse, the incessant Red-baiting and baseless charges against Trump make it nearly impossible for him to deal in any reasonable fashion with Putin; should he attempt to quell these ludicrous and easily avoidable tensions, the predictable cries of “See? He’s in Putin’s pocket!” will shortly deafen the airwaves.

And so the 21st century Abigail Williams, unlike her 17th century counterpart, has, in her avidity to deflect her own Uranium deal with the Russian Federation onto the new President, endangered not merely her small community or even her state, but the entire globe. This makes her both more and less than her theatrical coeval, who wanted merely a man she could not have, and when even that modest desire fell to ruin, departed the scene. Abigail-Hillary, by contrast, never shuts up. She and her disciples (who, again unlike those in Salem, don’t even — because they cannot, or their entire sense of self will come crashing about their dangerously empty heads — recognize how well their leader has played them) seem to want the very end of their world, as long as they can feel a little better about themselves during the millisecond they, and we, have before the first bomb drops.

Copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

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Reckless: “Point of Order!” (1964) and “Citizen Cohn” (1992)

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By Scott Ross

If Roy Cohn had not existed, I can’t imagine why anyone would have invented him. The best one can do with such a composite figure of venality, avarice, hypocrisy, corruption and ethical rot is what Tony Kushner accomplished: To re-invent him, for dramatic purposes — as a symbol, yes, but as an appallingly human one. The great irony of Cohn’s life is that he should be best remembered as a character in an intellectual playwright’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” How the perfection of that would have rankled him!

Kushner’s Cohn is the prefect embodiment of self-loathing squeezed into bespoke Armani, a man who, even as he is stricken with “the gay plague” is able to justify himself to his physician with a monologue that sums up a sense of personal identity breathtaking in its blindness to reality:

“Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels […] To someone who doesn’t understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who, in 15 years of trying, can’t get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows. Now, Henry, does that sound like me? […] I have sex with men, but unlike nearly every other man of which this is true, I bring the guy I’m screwing to Washington, and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand, because what I am is defined entirely by who I am. Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys.”

Paradoxically, the image of Cohn as something approximating a human being is encased, like a tsetse fly in mass-produced amber, in the kinescopes of the 1954 Army-McCarthy Hearings from which Emil de Antonio and Daniel Talbot concocted their mesmerizing 1964 Point of Order! I won’t call the picture a documentary, although it is certainly that, in the demotic sense of a living history. Rather the movie is a chronicle — a modern morality play if you like, one which carried with it the ultimate in unintended consequences. Cohn and Senator Joseph McCarthy, for whom he worked, expected these hearings to vindicate them, and to further their fruitless inquisition into alleged Communist infiltration of the government. That they were wholly unsuccessful in doing so, leaving only suicide and despair in their wake, was of no concern to them. They anticipated the televised hearings as spectacular in which they would star. The maxim “Be careful what you wish for” ought to have been hung over both men’s desks, but their preening arrogance was such that neither foresaw the ultimate outcome: Humiliation for both, and senate censure for “Tail Gunner Joe.”

McCarthy_Cohn

You can actually see, in the act of hubris that brings about their downfall, the moment when Cohn realized the jig was up: The instantly famous “Have you no decency, sir?” scene — for scene it most assuredly was — played in monologue by the Army’s counsel Joseph Welch. As McCarthy flails in the wake of the spontaneous burst of applause that erupts in the hearing room, desperately attempting to extricate himself from his own, neatly tailored straitjacket, a look of squirming panic crosses Cohn’s features. Whether, as some maintain, he warned McCarthy in advance not to attempt a smear of Welch’s colleague Fred Fisher, the squall of anguish that briefly grips Cohn at least conveys that McCarthy’s young counsel was smarter than his boss. McCarthy blunders on, and on, digging himself in deeper, unable to recognize (or perhaps realize) that he’s lost the entire war in that one moment of “recklessness and cruelty.”

That Welch was fully prepared for his seemingly spontaneous chiding of the Senator seems self-evident. That he was playing, far more expertly than the more seasoned McCarthy, directly to the television audience as well as to the spectators in that crowded hearing room (just as he defined himself, disingenuously, as a “simple lawyer” when he was quite obviously anything but) does not dilute the impact that moment had on its viewers, or indeed the way we respond to it now. If Ed Morrow’s “See it Now” exposé of McCarthy was the first nail in the junior Senator from Wisconsin’s political coffin, Welch’s indictment of him was the last.

Welch at Army-McCarthy hearings

The apotheosis of that “simple lawyer” routine was very likely a bit earlier, when, asked by McCarthy to define what a pixie is, Welch responds, with apparent good humor, “I would say that a pixie is a close relative of a fairy.” It got a good laugh, but there is something unsettling about it, as there was earlier, when, during discussion of an Army investigation into “homosexual behavior” on a Southern base, Senator after Senator fell over himself to be assured the encampment was not in his state. A pixie is more closely related to an elf (a characterization that rather fits Joseph Welch, twinkling merrily and making gentle witticisms) but the Army’s counsel surely knew that, in 1954, the word “fairy” would mean something entirely different to his audience. That he made that statement while cross-examining Cohn is telling. Welch may have been subtler than his adversary, but I don’t think he was any less devious or even — to use his own word — cruel.*

Curiously, close attention to Point of Order! causes the alert viewer to realize that, in purely legal terms, McCarthy and Cohn were often correct. More damningly, we are able to grasp, knowing the sort of man Roy Cohn was, that Secretary of Defense Robert Stevens almost certainly perjured himself when he denied Cohn had threatened him. Stevens dismisses as ridiculous the idea that Cohn could have promised to destroy both the President and the Army itself if he didn’t get his way on the treatment of draftee G. David Schine. But doesn’t what Cohn is alleged to have said sound like him?

McCarthy with Schine photo

The matter of Schine, which brought about the hearings themselves, is practically a Cohn special in itself. Whether or not he and Schine were intimate, as some have alleged, McCarthy’s counsel certainly took a strangely personal interest in the young hotel chain heir, attempting repeatedly to garner for his protégé cushy Army sinecures and intimating, in the stupidly and easily exposed cropped photo of Schine and Stevens, that the Secretary was obliging.

There was, in some quarters in 1964, criticism of deAntonio and Talbot for making less a documentary than something else. This is of course perfectly true, but not in the way their detractors meant. These commentators wanted their documentary straight, with point of view, narration, and camera manipulation. What the makers of Point of Order! had in mind was something entirely different: A document that makes its own statement, through the use of un-narrated, un-accented, found footage. It is, for example, surely no accident that, in sifting through what must, over the six-week period of those hearings, have been at least dozens of hours of footage, the future Attorney General is glimpsed in the background multiple times, his patrician looks and perfect coiffure in notable attendance. The Kennedy acolytes don’t like to admit it, but Bobby worked for McCarthy. In this way, his presence reflects the very sort of (also hotly denied) neoliberal McCarthyism that currently has in its manic grip all manner and condition of supposed liberal Democrats.


That the footage excerpted by the makers of Point of Order! is so readily available makes the failures of Citizen Cohn (1992) all the more curious. Adapted by David Franzoni from Nicholas von Hoffman’s cleverly titled 1988 biography, the HBO movie is so cartoonish and gets things so spectacularly, terribly wrong, that one can be distracted from what’s good in it. But the worst of its excesses is its blatant ripping-off of Kushner’s epic, two-part masterwork. One of the playwright’s most deliciously theatrical conceits lies in the presence, in Cohn’s private hospital room, of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Not content with duplicating this device, Franzoni ups the ante, bringing in the shades of McCarthy, Welch, the elder Cohns, and even a black juror from Roy’s 1968 trial on a wide variety of charges. Although Citizen Cohn predates the Broadway premiere of Angels, the first play (Millennium Approaches) was printed in American Theatre magazine in 1990, so Franzoni’s appropriation of the device can hardly be a coincidence. Why Kushner didn’t sue over that one, I can’t imagine.†

Citizen Cohn - Woods

Some of the actors (notably Joseph Bologna as Walter Winchell, Lee Grant as Cohn’s mother, Joe Petruzzi as Cohn’s boyfriend Peter and David Marshall Grant as a Robert F. Kennedy sporting a ludicrous, wildly unkempt hairdo) succumb to the cartoon-like quality of the piece, and are lost. Others (Ed Flanders as Welch, Jeffrey Nordling as Schine, Pat Hingle as J. Edgar Hoover, Karen Ludwig as Ethel Rosenberg, Daniel Benzali as that old closet-queen Cardinal Spellman, Frances Foster and Novella Nelson as two women named Annie Lee Moss, and Allen Garfield as Abe Feller) underplay and thus fare considerably better. But it is up to Frederic Forrest (as Dashiell Hammett), John McMartin as a doctor, Josef Sommer as Cohn’s father, Tovah Feldshuh as one of his wronged clients, the wonderful Fritz Weaver as Senator Everett Dirksen and Daniel Hugh Kelly as the Congressman Neil Gallagher (who gives back to Hoover in spades what that hypocritical old fascist deals to him) to provide that special thespic something that, to be unutterably prosaic, qualifies as veritable gales of fresh air.

James Woods, as Cohn, gives one of his patented scenery-chewing performances. Ron Leibman and Al Pacino were also… I believe the polite phrase is “larger than life”… in the 1993 premiere and the 2003 telefilm (also produced for HBO) of Angels respectively. And while Pacino looks nothing like Cohn, even eschewing the man’s increasingly bald pate, his performance is so riveting and so true you forgive him everything. There is a smugness about Woods that breaks through his characterizations, and it’s really on parade here, even during the Army-McCarthy Hearings. The Cohn Americans saw on their television screens was, if voluble, quiet and almost gentle, aware of the cameras but never (unlike his boss) playing to them. Woods smirks and mugs to the veriest galleries.

Worse, the director, Frank Pierson, stages the now-infamous Welch cross-examination with utter disregard for how it played out in Washington. He has Cohn, during the “Have you no decency?” exchange, seated, not across from Welch but beside him. All to give Woods a big, showy moment of standing up and stalking out of the hearing room, to the sound of a standing ovation from the spectators for Welch that goes on and on and on; what was in history a brief, shocking explosion is reinvented as the cheers of a first-night audience screaming “Author!”

That isn’t merely bad filmmaking, it’s bad history.

It has Roy Cohn written all over it.


*That Cohn also engaged in fag-baiting during the pernicious “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s, helping to persecute other homosexual men, does not mitigate Welch’s snideness.

†Others did: Franzoni was the source, via a plagiarism suit against Spielberg and company over his screenplay, of the legal trouble that faced Amistad on its 1997 opening. He is also a screenwriter with a long and well-documented penchant of getting historical events absolutely wrong.

Text (other than Tony Kushner’s) copyright 2017 by Scott Ross