The Mafia’s President by Don Fulsom draws on newly released government tapes, documents, and other fresh information to offer a carefully reported, deeply researched account of Richard Nixon’s secret connections to America’s top crime lords (available November 14, 2017).
Unbeknownst to most people even now, the election of 1968 placed the patron saint of the Mafia in the White House. In other words, Richard Nixon would go on to not only lead a criminal presidency; he would be totally indebted to our nation’s top mobsters.
By 1969, thanks in large part to his long-time campaign manager and political advisor Murray Chotiner, a lawyer who specialized in representing mobsters, Nixon had participated in secret criminal dealings for more than 20 years with sketchy figures such as Mickey Cohen, Mob financial guru Meyer Lansky, Teamsters union chief Jimmy Hoffa, and New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello. And with Chotiner as one of his key behind-the-scenes advisors in the White House, Nixon's ties to the Mafia didn't end there. The Mafia’s President reveals a mind-blowing litany of favors Nixon exchanged with these sinister characters over decades, ranging from springing Jimmy Hoffa from prison to banning the federal government from using the terms “Mafia” and “La Cosa Nostra.”
The Mob in the Age of Nixon
Unbeknownst to most people even now, the election of 1968 placed the patron saint of the Mafia in the White House. Richard Nixon would not only go on to lead a criminal presidency, but he would be totally indebted to our nation’s most murderous gang lords. Without massive contributions from his Syndicate sponsors, Republican Richard Nixon might not have edged out Democrat Hubert Humphrey.
How much Mafia money financed Nixon’s 1968 bid? Estimates range from $400,000 to $2 million—much of it under the table and unreported. (Official post-election reports put Nixon’s total spending at $25 million in 1968 dollars; Humphrey’s at $5 million.)
The Mafia has been one of the most widely known, feared, and influential criminal groups for much of American history. La Cosa Nostra, meaning “this thing of ours,” was the American offshoot of the Italian Mafia and became the main target of the FBI by the latter half of the twentieth century. La Cosa Nostra was powerful and prosperous, to say the least, as the various families combined brought in billions of dollars a year.
While moneymaking is its main goal, the Mafia has always had a flair for political corruption, from which the FBI was not immune. In 2002, it came to light that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, from 1965 on, sanctioned the hiring of Mafia-connected criminals as informants while protecting them from prosecution, even in cases of murder. This was all in the name of bringing down the Mafia, as Hoover was perhaps overcompensating for ignoring its existence for so long. Yet it mostly resulted in murderers escaping prosecution and innocent men going to jail for their crimes.
Hoover’s crusade against the Mafia was weak at best, but Richard Nixon treated the organization as if it were the fourth branch of government. While Hoover might have succumbed to the power of the Mafia, Nixon courted and pampered the crime machine. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Mafia developed its political tastes. It is now known that the CIA involved the Mafia in failed attempts to assassinate the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro during his early years in power. Vice President Nixon initiated and supervised the Castro assassination plots. In addition, historians now suspect that key Mafia-connected players were involved in the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. The mere existence of Mafia-plot conspiracy theories surrounding JFK’s murder—whether accurate or not—points to the amount of actual and perceived power of organized crime at the time.
As Nixon accumulated political value during his vice presidency in the 1950s, Americans were becoming more aware of the Mafia’s overwhelming influence. Senate Resolution 202 funded the Committee on Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce—known to the public as the Kefauver Committee. The panel’s chairman was Estes Kefauver, a Tennessee Democrat. Starting in 1951 and lasting over one year, the Kefauver Committee traveled to at least 14 major U.S. cities to conduct interviews with hundreds of witnesses about organized crime.
In March 1951, the Kefauver Committee televised some of its hearings, and a record 30 million Americans tuned in to watch. The live coverage ensured that the committee’s investigations on the Mafia became common knowledge among Americans. The committee interviewed important Mafia men, like Frank Costello, a notorious New York Mob boss. To the public, Costello epitomized the American gangster, so to see the U.S. government go after him was quite significant in the history of U.S.-Mafia relations.
While the legislative outcomes of the Kefauver Committee were mostly cursory, the cultural effects were easily seen. Americans became much more concerned about the shady connections between their elected representatives and organized crime; the hearings illustrated just how many officials had helped or even profited from Mafia activities.
The Kefauver Committee’s final report in 1951 stressed that the Syndicate had greatly transformed itself since Prohibition:
Where smaller local crime groups once specialized in bootlegging, bookmaking, prostitution or drug dealing, [today’s] groups are multipurpose in character, engaging in any racket where there is money to be made. The Mafia … has an important part in binding together into a loose association the … major criminal … gangs and individual hoodlums throughout the country.
Chillingly, the committee concluded that Mafia domination was based fundamentally on “muscle” and “murder. [It] … will ruthlessly eliminate anyone who stands in the way of its success.”
As Nixon was preparing for his first run for the presidency in 1960, a Senate committee called the Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management—in short, the McClellan Committee—examined Mafia-union connections from 1957 through the early 1960s. Somewhat ironically, Nixon’s political rivals, John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert (Bobby), the committee’s chief counsel, did much of the questioning.
Bobby was especially relentless in grilling mobsters and union bosses as the brothers exposed sinister ties between the Mafia and certain American labor organizations. As Boston Globe reporters Bryan Bender and Neil Swidey observed: “[Bobby’s] chief nemesis during these hearings was Jimmy Hoffa, the squat bull-faced leader of the Teamsters union. Bobby accused Hoffa of funneling millions in worker pension funds into a money-laundering scheme with Mob leaders. That alliance bought the Teamster leader muscle to silence his enemies and scare corporate leaders into submission.”
The McClellan hearings are also often referred to as the Valachi hearings. Joseph Valachi was a low-ranking member of the Genovese crime family of New York, and he became the first Mafia member to testify for the U.S. government.
Valachi’s often-sensational six days of televised revelations proved addictive entertainment for the American public. The mobster’s most memorable moment in the witness chair was his discussion of La Cosa Nostra’s initiation ceremony:
Then they called us [new recruits] one at a time … there was a gun and a knife on the table … I repeated some words they told me … He [Salvatore Maranzano] went on to explain that they lived by the gun and by the knife and you die by the gun and the knife … that is what the rules were, of Cosa Nostra … then he gave me a piece of paper, and I was to burn it … that is the way I burn if I expose this organization.
When he was through testifying, Valachi was granted special privileges and continued special protection within the prison system. He also had a $100,000 gangland price on his head. Attorney General Robert Kennedy praised the Valachi hearings and said they would give him added ammunition in his crusade to dismantle the Mob.
Mainly through the efforts of Bobby Kennedy, Jimmy Hoffa was eventually locked up for jury tampering and fraud. But that didn’t keep President Richard Nixon from granting clemency to the notorious union boss in 1971—due to a massive Teamsters-Mob payoff in exchange for Hoffa’s freedom.
While both the Kefauver and McClellan Committees were instrumental in defining the organized crime problem in the United States, they did little to weaken the Mafia’s power and influence. The Senate committees made their wary conclusions surrounding the Mafia, but that didn’t prevent La Cosa Nostra’s favorite politician from seizing the White House.
An FBI agent investigating widespread Teamsters-Mafia deals told Jack Nelson and Bill Hazlett of the Los Angeles Times in 1973, “This whole thing of the Teamsters and the Mob and the White House is one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen.”
When Richard Nixon became president, organized crime was raking in at least $70 billion a year. And the $1 billion Teamsters Central States Pension Fund was considered the prime source of working capital for the Mob. The Oakland Tribune said the fund was the “bankroll for some of America’s most sinister underworld figures.”
Nixon’s longtime favors-for-money partnership with the Mafia hit its zenith during his presidency, and the godfathers ascended to their greatest era of power and profits.
Copyright © 2017 Don Fulsom.
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Don Fulsom is an adjunct professor of government at American University. He is the author of Treason: Nixon and the 1968 Election and Nixon’s Darkest Secrets. A White House correspondent during five different presidencies―and a UPI bureau chief in Washington for seven years―he has written articles for The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and Esquire, among others, and has been interviewed about politics on major television networks, including CNN and Fox. He lives in Washington, D.C.