Mafia remains alive and well

Dan Rodricks

March 16, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

Now we are being told that the Mafia, as we know it -- and most of us know it only by movies and myth -- is not expected to survive. The New York City trial of John Gotti, a mob boss of People magazine dimensions, is said to mark the last chapter of organized crime in the United States. For those who are inclined to buy into this line, I say caveat emptor.

That the demise of any single man could finish modern organized crime is a theory of law enforcement and media that has been proven wrong again and again. Godfather Journalism, the college of reporting that periodically presents this idea, is dependent on the concept of a "boss of bosses" to perpetuate the myth of a Mob conglomerate. Knock off the big boss, and everything falls apart. However logical it sounds, it's probably wrong.

I used to follow and dabble in Godfather Journalism myself. Back in my Boston days, we had mob figures regularly identified in the newspapers. The press, of course, relied on federal and state investigators and prosecutors to name names, usually in indictments or depositions. Once a local hoodlum was anointed, newspaper readers could follow their progress the way sports fans followed famous athletes. I used to keep score.

I savored Playboy magazine's history of the mob in America. I had a collection of articles, many of them bearing the by-line of Nicholas Gage of the New York Times, former dean of the College of Godfather Journalism. Every now and then, in Boston or New York or New Jersey, big hits would be reported, setting into motion something akin to a corporate reorganization of mob hierarchy.

One Sunday in 1977, a man named Carmine Galante emerged as the new boss of bosses, replacing the legendary Carlo Gambino. Galante's appointment to the throne was announced by all major newspapers and magazines at once, suggesting that practitioners of Godfather Journalism had made the selection the way baseball writers vote on the American League MVP.

Jack Newfield, who probably coined the phrase "Godfather Journalism," dissected the dynamics of the media-mob relationship in a trenchant piece in the Village Voice after Galante's sensational 1979 execution. "Most Mafia reporting is a consumer fraud," Newfield wrote. "The mob hasn't had a boss of bosses since Lucky Luciano, but . . . the media has a need to name new godfathers with the frequency of new Miss Subways. . . . In fact, the public's impression -- and much of the media's knowledge -- about the Mafia owes a large debt to the imagery of Hollywood."

That imagery built the myth of a boss of bosses.

After years of prosecutions, the Mafia survives as organized entities the way urban drug gangs, such as the ones that haunt Baltimore and other cities, survive -- as mostly native hoodlums working in teams to carry out their crimes. But, as tempting as it is to believe, the Mafia is not some multinational corporate giant, with a chairman of the board. "There is no Mafia godfather," Newfield wrote 13 years ago. "There is no capo di tutti capi. There are just law enforcement agencies trying to arrest gangs of career criminals. And newspaper publishers trying to improve circulation. The rest is hype, the rest is myth."

All politics is local; organized crime thrives that way, too. In 1985, after Galante's successor, Paul Castellano, was murdered -- according to New York prosecutors, on the orders of John Gotti -- the columnist Murray Kempton wrote: "The tree of the (American) mob has withered; it will have to go back to its roots." In other words, the American mob, persistently publicized and prosecuted a la Gotti, was dying because it had forgotten how to do business the old-fashioned way.

That same year, I traveled to southern Italy to attend a wedding. Oddly, the wedding was held several miles and a ferry trip away from the village of the bride. I was told that the family did not want to have to invite the local Mafia don to the wedding.

The house in which I stayed, owned by a local businessman, had a wall around it and an electronic security gate of iron bars. There was a whispered acknowledgment of the existence of a local crime boss, a man who lived in the village, who quietly and routinely extorted tributes from local businesses. Unlike John Gotti, he did not wear flashy suits, never got his picture in a newspaper, and never went on trial. And, as far as I know, he's still in business.

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