In Hoffa’s Shadow
This week: a conversation with Jack Goldsmith about his step-father, Chuckie O’Brien—Jimmy Hoffa’s right-hand man. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.
Jack Goldsmith’s storied legal career has run through the Bush administration—where he found himself in conflict with pro-torture and pro-surveillance forces—and to Harvard Law School, where he’s now a professor. He’s written a memoir of his life and his relationship with his step-father, Chuckie O’Brien, Jimmy Hoffa’s wingman from an early age, and the person long suspected of involvement in Hoffa’s disappearance.
It’s a loving portrait of fathers and sons, sons without fathers and the meaning of loyalty. It’s also a detective story about what happened to Jimmy Hoffa 45 years ago, still one of America’s most alluring unsolved mysteries, and a story about American labor history.
Jack Goldsmith says he wrote this book to clear Chuckie’s name from the charge that he picked up Hoffa from a parking lot in suburban Detroit on July 30th, 1975, and drove him to his death. Despite police and FBI reports, hundreds of newspaper articles, books, movies, and TV specials, Goldsmith never thought he did it, and so he did his own investigation that included interviews with four of the original FBI officials assigned to the case who exonerated Chuckie.
The lesson I learned in writing this book — you know Bobby Kennedy, the liberal icon, the angel — he was a sinner. He had a lot of flaws and he was a sinner. Jimmy Hoffa—the well-known, thuggish mobbed-up sinner—had angelic qualities.
But it also happened with me and Chuckie. When I was 23 years old at Yale Law School, doing really well. I was convinced of my virtue and my career and that I was the good guy and Chuckie was the bad guy, the guy who is this mobbed up guy who is associated with criminals his whole life.
I kind of forgotten what a wonderful father he was. And then 20 years later, when I’m in the Justice Department up to my neck in illegal surveillance, I’m not so virtuous anymore. Certainly people in the outside world are treating me as not very virtuous at all. And it turns out that the things Chuckie had told me, Chuckie the ignoramus who had told me about what was going on in the Justice Department, turned out to absolutely be right.
Chuckie O’Brien, Goldsmith told us, often said
The government has backup, by which he meant that the government, when they’re pursuing us and going after us to enforce the law, they’re cutting corners and breaking the law and interpreting things away so that they can do whatever they want to us.
And later, while working in the Justice Department under George W. Bush, Goldsmith reflected on O’Brien’s term “backup” when confronted with a surveillance program of frightening reach:
I ended up basically disapproving or not approving half of it. I approved the other half. . . . I was offering backup, and I thought about that when I was in the Justice Department.
We couldn’t fit the whole conversation into one hour, so we added Jack’s digressions about surveillance, the FBI, and the Justice Department in our political moment. Listen here.
Watch: The Irishman
We timed our Hoffa conversation with the release of a major film about Hoffa—The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese. Part of the conversation around it addresses something entirely outside of the film: Scorsese’s recent remarks that Marvel superhero films aren’t even cinema. It was a judgement based on taste, from an eminent filmmaker who’s something of an arbiter of taste (though his influence there must be far smaller than that of Marvel’s Kevin Feige). This kind of declaration demands rebuttals, and there were many of those. But Scorsese’s also found many supporters, including those associated with auteur cinema — directors and critics committed to the idea that cinema at its best should advance many individuated visions.
On the one hand, de gustibus non est disputandum, but then again the Marvel Cinematic Universe films are an unprecedentedly wide-reaching imposition upon filmgoers of a single imagined reality—that, too, non est disputandum. Hollywood’s always sold especially formulaic entertainment, but never before have theatres been so overrun with a single vision this intensely unified and expansive and globally distributed and coherently centered around the mytheme of quasi-fascist super-people.
Then again, then again, the Marvel films are not uniformly uniform. This is not a simply argument of right vs. wrong, and to think about Scorsese v. Marvel as right v. wrong is probably to miss the most useful thing about the debate: the intensified attention to artistry. Scorsese at last helped his case in the New York Times, with an elegant and lucid defense of artistry founded upon mystery, risk, character. How do we better understand that kind of artistry, or artistry in general?
Watch: The King of Comedy
While we’re waiting for The Irishman to come to the Hub, the Harvard Film Archive screened this Scorsese gem this weekend. In The King of Comedy—relevant today for so many reasons, including its status as the inspiration for Joker (also produced by Scorsese)—Robert DeNiro plays a deranged, obsessed stand-up comedian who kidnaps TV host Jerry Lewis and takes over his comedy set on live television.
When Scorsese says Marvel films aren’t cinema, he isn’t arguing against fun, or popular fun, or whatever the most alarmed poptimists suspect; his quarrel is with a perceived lack of imaginative exploration. There are obviously a lot of fun stories that activate the full potential of art, including some of the films Scorsese cites in his NY Times piece, and including comics.
Consider the Belgian Adventures of Tintin comic books—they’re juvenile and simplistic, but they’re also like the work of some strange, surprising combination of Agatha Christie and the Marx brothers. The novelist Tom McCarthy writes, of Tintin, that “within a simple medium for children is a mastery of plot and symbol, theme and subtext far superior to that displayed by most ‘real’ novelists.”
Emily Temple at Lit Hub provides an excellent overview of Tintinology, and isolates some of the most profound lines in McCarthy’s study, lines conveying the idea that the Tintin comics constellate meanings with maximal richness and variety and patterned precision. Here’s McCarthy:
[I]n the Tintin books the tense, loaded situations that arise are managed with all the subtlety normally attributed to Jane Austen or Henry James. … A huge symbolic register runs through the books, turning (as we will see) around signs such as the sun, water, the house, even tobacco — a register that, consistent and expanding at the same time, is worthy of a Faulkner or a Brontë. Played out against a backdrop of wars, revolutions and recessions, of technological progress imbued with an almost sacred aspect, not to mention old gods who steadfastly refuse to die, all of this amasses to an oeuvre that, again like that of many of the best writers — Stendahl, George Eliot or Pynchon, for example — forms a lens, or prism, through which a whole era lurches into focus.
Listen: A People’s History
Our producer Conor Gillies has made a new podcast, with Alejandro Ramirez; it’s from Jacobin, with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. It’s a documentary podcast covering events from working-class history that resonate across decades.
For this season, coming out November 14, they’re on the following mission:
We investigate these events from the lens of one community: Columbia Point, the largest public housing project in New England. Built on an isolated landfill site next to the Boston city dump, it was the site of major organizing, from welfare rights to a Free Breakfast for Children program. It was also the first public housing project to be sold off and redeveloped as private “mixed-income” development (and was a model for the federal policy “HOPE VI”).
This is the untold story of the tenant struggles in and around Boston public housing. It’s a story about regular people — mainly black mothers — standing up to the mayor’s office, organizing sit-ins to get the services they were owed, fighting evictions, and creating their own power.
The trailer is here!
Listen: The Dollyverse
Too many podcasts, too little time is the name of the game these days. Nine hours on Dolly Parton you say? Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad, who grew up in Memphis and got to know Dolly through his doctor dad, is the guide for a trip through Dolly Parton’s America. Dolly may or may not be the unifying figure for a divided America, as Jad suggests, but he’s right that she’s a portal to lots of different kinds of stories, and damn she can sing a tune. This one’s not just for country music fans. It’s binge-y good!
This Week’s Ephemeral Library
Karl Ove Knausgaard on The Slowness of Literature and the Shadow of Knowledge. Barbara Ehrenreich on what she sees in paleolithic cave paintings. Rachel Cusk on women in art. Elizabeth Warren Is Jeopardizing Our Fight for Medicare for All. Ralph Nader’s last safety crusade.
Argentine muralist Andres Iglesias (whose tag is Cobre) is nearly finished with his mural of 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg in San Francisco’s Union Square.
Who knew? Twenty-three year-old Annie Kopchovsky cycled away from her Boston home in 1894 leaving her husband and three small children and became the first woman to ride around the world.
That’s all for this week friends! Jump on your bike and take a spin.
The OS mobsters.