Anyone who wants to understand the reality of modern America should pick up Gus Russo’s latest book, “The Outfit.” With diligent research and relentless candor, Russo strips away the façade of America’s pious national myths, showing in great detail how the criminal underworld and the even more criminal “upperworld” of big business and politics have fused in a deadly symbiosis that underlies the nation’s power structure.
You could begin unravelling this dirty skein at almost any point in the last century, but let’s join the story at a critical juncture: 1960, when Democrats Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson battled for the right to face Republican Richard Nixon in the presidential election. Of course, bribery, corruption, violence and vote-rigging have long been an integral part of America’s glorious electoral heritage a shining example to all the world but the 1960 election was the first time that the country’s mobsters had intervened so directly, and so decisively, in the national ballot.
They’d seen one of their creations in the White House before, of course: Harry Truman, the Missouri haberdasher who was plucked from obscurity by Tom Pendergast, boss of the Kansas City mob. Pendergast, whose iron grip on local politics was augmented by the judicious use of murder, eventually propelled Truman to the U.S. Senate. From there, having won a well-deserved reputation as a zealous scourge of corporate war profiteering (the mob steered clear of that particular racket, which was dominated by bluebloods like the Bushes), Truman was chosen as vice president in 1944. A few months later, Franklin Roosevelt died and Pendergast’s boy was suddenly president of the United States.
Although Truman kept his own hands clean of bribes (except the usual ones known as “campaign contributions”), he retained a fierce tribal loyalty to the Kansas City gang and their overlords: “The Outfit,” the Chicago-based heirs of Al Capone, and the nation’s most powerful underworld organization. In one of the major scandals of Truman’s administration, his Attorney General, Tom Clark, approved early paroles for three of the Outfit’s most notorious figures. A second scandal followed when Truman rewarded Clark for these gangland services rendered with a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
But that’s the way it works. “In the corrupted currents of this world,” as Claudius notes in Hamlet, “the wicked prize itself buys out the law.” It’s how you climb the greasy pole of power. Especially if you weren’t born to the purple, a scion of America’s nobility, those august clans who made their now well-laundered fortunes through slavery (Washington, Jefferson et al), gun-running and war profiteering (the Bushes), bootlegging and stock fraud (the Kennedys), military conquest (Texas, California, the vast Indian lands), ethnic cleansing (the Indian population slashed from 8 million to 120,000 during the 19th century), graft and terrorism (the du Ponts consolidating their hold on the gunpowder industry by firebombing their rivals; the Rockefellers burning down the oil derricks of their competitors).
In 1960, all three major candidates were mobbed up. JFK’s father, the ex-bootlegger Joe Kennedy, dealt directly with his former associates in the Outfit, tapping them for untraceable vote-buying cash and their unrivaled vote-rigging muscle. Nixon, then vice president, had long worked his mob contacts chiefly the Los Angeles gang of Mickey Cohen and New York’s Meyer Lansky for secret campaign funds. Meanwhile, the Chicago Outfit playing both sides as always sought Nixon’s favor by agreeing to a CIA request for help in assassinating Fidel Castro.
Johnson was backed by the Carlos Marcello gang out of New Orleans, who paid the all-powerful Texas senator $100,000 a year to keep the legislative heat off their gambling and racing interests. Of course, this mob dime was small beer to Lyndon, whose career had been bankrolled by massive cash infusions (some of them legal) from the construction and military servicing firm Brown & Root now more famous as the chief cash cow in the Halliburton empire. (Like the Outfit, Halliburton always plays both sides.)
The rest, as they say, is history. Kennedy’s Outfit connections trumped Johnson’s Marcello play for the nomination, then Joe’s vote-riggers outmuscled Nixon’s vote-riggers in the election the closest in American history. Nixon felt, rightly, that he’d been robbed of a presidency he’d bought fair and square. Thus he went on to even greater illegality including outright treason in his secret negotiations with Vietnamese officials to scuttle peace talks before the 1968 election to ensure his perch atop the greasy pole. Millions of people would die from his expansion of a war that U.S. officials had already privately conceded was a disastrous mistake. As Russo points out, gangland’s rap sheet looks like a hymnbook next to the genocidal record of the upperworld.
Now, in the 21st century, the fusion of the two worlds is complete. Legitimized criminality is the order of the day. The bluebloods are back on top, openly using the Outfit’s tactics on a global scale: racketeering as statecraft. Instead of carving out criminal niches on the fringes of society, the Oval Outfit takes down whole countries. Instead of whacking a few wiseguys in internecine vendettas, the Bush gang kills tens of thousands of innocent people to loot national treasuries (Iraq’s, America’s). The “war on terror” is just a mob feud writ large: the bin Laden crew schooled and financed by the Washington boys during the first Afghan caper are duking it out with their mentors for the biggest pile of swag in history: control of the world’s oil.
Those who prefer the nourishing disillusionment of truth over poison national myth should seek out Russo’s book. Read it and weep.
The Outfit: The Role of Chicago’s Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America, by Gus Russo. Bloomsbury Press.
CHRIS FLOYD is a columnist for The Moscow Times and a regular contributor to CounterPunch. He can be reached at email@example.com.