By Thomas Maier
(Excerpted from “All That Glitters: Anna Wintour, Tina Brown and The Rivalry Inside America’s Richest Media Empire”, Skyhorse Press, 2019.)
Power was invigorating to lawyer Roy Cohn, a magical tonic that made his sleepy-looking eyes move faster around a room, and his sometimes-prickly personality turn witty and effervescent.
During the 1980s, Cohn had numerous powerful clients -- including his best friend, media baron Si Newhouse Jr., the city’s top mobster Anthony (“Fat Tony”) Salerno, and a local developer, Donald Trump, the most ambitious of all.
Although a registered Democrat all his life, Cohn felt most at home with anti-government Republicans like President Ronald Reagan and, during a more confrontational time, Senator Joseph McCarthy, the virulent anti-Communist of the 1950s. At the controversial Army-McCarthy Senate investigative hearings, chief counsel Cohn posed the classic witness question of the Red-scare era: “Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?”
From McCarthy, later censured for his baseless accusations, Roy learned the art of smash-mouth politics, a lesson he taught to others.
“Roy was brutal, but he was a very loyal guy,” recalled Trump, who relied on Cohn’s legal advice starting in the 1970s. “He brutalized for you.”
By the 1980s, Roy had ingratiated himself with the Newhouse family as perhaps no other outsider. To those curious about the ever-secretive Si and his multibillion-dollar empire, Cohn was more than willing to be quoted, providing his own angle and “spin” to reporters, like a seasoned public-relations agent.
In American life, there were few more powerful forces than the media—with its pervasive reach among the public and its ability to generate billions of dollars in revenues. Cohn was well aware of his best friend’s place in that pantheon of power.
“If they wanted, the Newhouses could push a couple of buttons and become the most powerful publishing force in the United States,” Roy told The Wall Street Journal in 1982. “But that would collide with their concept of local autonomy.”
But Cohn had every intention of using the Newhouse news pages to help his friends and to punish his political enemies. Eventually, Cohn became a full-fledged power broker in New York City and national politics.
“Don’t Mess with Roy Cohn,” warned an Esquire magazine headline with his pugnacious face on its cover.
As a political fixer, Cohn’s most remarkable publicity coup with Newhouse’s Parade, a magazine delivered in thousands of Sunday newspapers across the country, didn’t feature himself. Instead it involved one of his most important allies— the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.
As the 1984 campaign season approached, Cohn had lunch with Ed Rollins, a top political aide to the President. Rollins worried about poll results showing Reagan’s age -- as well as lingering doubts that the President might not have recovered fully from the 1981 assassination attempt -- posed one of the few obstacles to his otherwise certain re-election. Cohn soon had a perfect solution.
“It seemed to me that a well-placed magazine article showing the President’s physical prowess would be the best answer,” Cohn told Sidney Zion for his autobiography. “The obvious magazine was Parade.”
According to Cohn’s account, the magazine’s editor “engineered an article on the President’s outdoor activities with a cover piece showing him diving into a swimming pool, his massive chest and strong body, and then leading into shots of him chopping wood at the California ranch. The article served its purpose. It was widely received and acclaimed.”
The Cohn-planted story and carefully staged photographs of the President more than adequately fulfilled its purpose. As Time magazine commented, “With its Charles Atlas photos of a fit, firm Reagan, the Paradepiece had a clear political payoff: if a President pumps iron, his age seems moot.”
Documents at the Reagan Presidential Library show how Cohn traded on the Parade cover story. In his August 1984 letter to a Reagan aide seeking another favor, Cohn described himself as “Special Counsel” to the Newhouse Publications and boasted that he had “arranged the now famous picture and story of the President working out.”
When the Parade cover story appeared, the White House was overjoyed. Cohn had worked his magic in the effort to restore Reagan’s image as a rugged outdoorsman, much younger and healthier than his age suggested. With the help of Newhouse’s magazine, the President had put the assassin’s bullet behind him, at least in the mind of the American public.
Like any self-respecting fixer, Cohn became annoyed when David Gergen, upon leaving as White House communications director, took credit for the Parade cover with the President. But the GOP cognoscenti knew who had really fixed the deal.
“That was absolutely Roy; that was Roy’s handiwork—the cover of Ronald Reagan lifting weights,” recalled Roger Stone, the GOP political strategist who got to know Cohn while serving as Northeast campaign manager for Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign (and later a political adviser to Donald Trump). “Roy told me about the idea several weeks before it happened.”
Especially pleased with the outcome was First Lady Nancy Reagan, who had a fondness for Cohn and his behind-the-scenes approach.
“I remember Mike Deaver and Nancy Reagan thanked him profusely for it,” recalled Stone. “She knew that Roy could get things done, and she respected and used people who could get things done.”
In the pantheon of Cohn favors, the most far-reaching deal was Newhouse’s personal effort to convince Roy’s client, local New York real estate developer Donald Trump, to write a book for Random House.
|FBI undercover photo of Roy Cohn and his client Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno at the same time Cohn was friend/attorney for Si Newhouse and future President Donald Trump. All described in ALL THAT GLITTERS|
By 1984, Newhouse was familiar with Trump from New York social circles and their own mutual friendship with Roy. Cohn had helped broker sensitive matters for both men. At that time, Cohn was well known nationally, but Trump had not yet become the man of a thousand tabloid headlines.
Trump’s marquee potential became evident to Si when “street sales”—issues bought at newsstands rather than through subscriptions—jumped for Newhouse’s GQ magazine issue featuring a smiling Donald on its May 1984 cover. The author of this fawning freelance GQ article, Graydon Carter, would play a much bigger role in the Newhouse media empire in years to come.
|Graydon Carter wrote this flattering Donald Trump GQ profile that begins with a Roy Cohn anecdote and inspired Si Newhouse to publish "The Art of the Deal," Trump's memoir that became the launching pad for his national career.|
Trump -- then a 38-year-old businessman with a dashing appearance and a multimillion-dollar real estate portfolio -- captured the interest of readers, embodying the era’s much-publicized ideal of the brash Yuppie on the make. In a money-worshipping culture, Trump seemed the embodiment of “SUCCESS – How Sweet It Is”, as the cover headline touted.
“He has powerful friends, a beautiful wife, a football team and some of the choicest turf in Manhattan,” as Carter’s GQ article described Trump. “It’s wild, it’s crazy. Isn’t it?”
Naturally, this Trump tribute began with an anecdote involving his pal Roy Cohn (“known around town as a fixer of sorts”) and how The Donald helped a visiting client of Cohn’s law firm land a last-minute hotel room at one of Trump’s places. There was no mention in the article that Roy was also Newhouse’s lawyer.
But Graydon did recognize Trump’s star power and his deal-making ability. “As in the movies, success in real estate often depends on the deal, and Trump, in his relatively short career, has proved himself a remarkably deft dealmaker,” Carter wrote. Usually, in his rendition, these deals were at the expense of dim-witted bureaucrats who gave away tax abatements or other goodies at the public’s expense.
Even if Graydon was holding his nose at the stench of Trump’s ego, his article suggested this wheeler-dealer was on his way to becoming America’s ideal billionaire, in the grand old tradition of “men who take risks and make millions”.
Si also saw gold in this golden-haired dealmaker. At a December 1984 book sales conference in Puerto Rico, Newhouse made signing up Trump an immediate priority.
Soon afterward, Si personally called Trump, and that initial contact begat a series of follow-up meetings with Random House’s then associate publisher Peter Osnos. “It was very definitely, and almost uniquely, Si Newhouse’s idea,” Osnos later recalled.
During one conference with Trump, Osnos brought along, at Si’s suggestion, a dummy book jacket with a picture of the wheeler-dealer standing splendidly in the atrium of his Trump Tower. trump was emblazoned in large gold letters across a black background at the top of the jacket. Osnos wrapped the jacket around a thick Russian novel for further verisimilitude.
Although it wasn’t War and Peace, the sales pitch worked. “When I’m ready to do the book, I’d like to do it with Random House,” Trump wrote to Newhouse.
Privately, Trump was flattered by Si’s interest, enough to approach him personally. Trump told the press he’d donate his royalties to charity and chose writer Tony Schwartz to be his Boswell.
A year later, his self-congratulatory paean to himself, Trump: The Art of the Deal, became a huge best-seller for Random House. The book served as Trump’s own personal claim to greatness, the Rosetta stone for all that followed. In it, he recalled his Manhattan real estate deals and mentioned how much he learned from his personal lawyer, Roy Cohn.
“I don’t kid myself about Roy,” Trump recounted.“He was no Boy Scout. He once told me that he’d spent more than two thirds of his adult life under indictment on one charge or another. That amazed me. I said to him, ‘Roy, just tell me one thing. Did you really do all that stuff?’ He looked at me and smiled. ‘What the hell do you think?’ he said. I never really knew.”
In Vanity Fair,Tina Brown ran an excerpt from the Trump book under the headline “Big Deal: How I Do It My Way”,undoubtedly pleasing her boss. It contained some of The Donald’s favorite bromides that seem both hilarious and prescient in retrospect. (“You don’t act on impulse – even a charitable one—unless you’ve considered the downside,” the future president declared. “Fighting back might run up my legal bills and even make me rethink my strategy, but the one thing I wasn’t about to do was allow myself to be blackmailed.”)
Trump’s tome “has a crassness I like,” Brown described in her private diary at the time. “In the end, the only thing about self-serving books like this is, do they capture the true voice… There is something authentic about Trump’s bullshit. Anyway, it feels, when you are finished it, as if you been nose to nose for four hours with an entertaining con man and I suspect the American public will like nothing better. Very glad I got it for the mag.”
Brown couldn’t figure out Newhouse’s close friendship with Cohn, a right-wing mob lawyer whose public atrocities were already well known. “Si seems to love thugs who will give him a frisson of toughness,” she observed of their friendship. “Si is a gangster of wishful thinking, always excited by the presence of swagger.“ As with Harvey Weinstein, a thuggish friend later of her own, Tina learned to ignore the rumors of impropriety and concentrate on her business at hand.
A few years later, a different ghostwriter prepared Surviving at the Top,Trump’s 1990 sequel. It arrived in bookstores shortly after Trump’s financial troubles became known, with very disappointing sales results. But the original “Art of the Deal” book secured Trump’s place as a nationally recognized figure in the bright firmament of American Hype.
From now on, in almost mythic terms, Trump would sell himself as the nation’s favorite swashbuckling tycoon. After Trump appeared on TV to promote his 1987 book, former president Richard Nixon wrote him a fan letter, sensing his political potential. “Whenever you decide to run for office you will be a winner,” Nixon predicted.
For Newhouse, the Trump best-seller captured the spirit of what he was trying to do both at Random House and, even more so, at his Condé Nast magazines.
“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,” said one person intimately involved in the first Trump book. “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.”
When the book party was held in the Trump Tower atrium, Si Newhouse greeted nearly a thousand guests along with his new author who thanked him profusely. The two shook hands before the crowd – both powerful sons of wealthy men from New York’s outer boroughs, both scions who wanted to make a name for themselves in Manhattan.
Twenty violinists played in the background. Former Miss America Phyllis George and TV star Barbara Walters attended. Comedian Jackie Mason introduced Trump and his then-wife Ivanka with the quip, “Here comes the king and queen!”
Nearly three decades later, Trump appeared in the same pink marble atrium, with a new wife Melania, to announce his 2016 bid for president. His old ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, wasn’t there. Like Graydon Carter and Tina Brown, Schwartz now felt repulsion at “sociopath” Trump, a household name he helped create.
“I feel a deep sense of remorse that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and made him more appealing than he is,” Schwartz said before Election Day 2016. “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and get the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”
Schwartz expressed nothing but regret at the 1987 publishing deal engineered by Si Newhouse.
“I put lipstick on a pig,” Schwartz said of his Trump book, the one that The Donald didn’t write. He now considered himself a “sellout” for accepting the money.