Gus Russo's 'The Outfit' -- Is the mob really all that bad?

On Books

March 31, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

I left New York in 1958 to become a reporter in Chicago, which then was the training ground and battlefield for the most aggressive and energetic journalists in the United States. I immediately began covering cops and crime and the federal courts for the legendary, now dead, City News Bureau, and then the Cook County Criminal Courts for the Chicago Tribune. I covered mob trials and watched legendary mobsters led silently in and out of grand jury rooms. I went on raids of operations of "the Outfit" -- a term proudly particular to Chicago, where "Mafia" was seldom used. I listened to tapes of wiretaps, tracked hundreds of real-estate title records. Many men and a few women who were involved with mobsters talked to me in hallways and saloons. When the mothers of "connected" politicians and court officials died, I went to their wakes -- where they talked ever more freely. I discovered wakes to be Chicago's best single background source. Later, in Washington, New York, Philadelphia and beyond, as a reporter and editor, I went on exploring the underworld.

High-level organized crime and its influence in politics and in the national economy have fascinated me now for more than 40 years. I have read many -- though far from all -- books about it. Now comes The Outfit: The Role of Chicago's Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America, by Gus Russo (Bloomsbury, 560 pages, $35).

It is an enormous book, and each of its 560 pages is enormously detailed. But Russo is so engagingly in command of his material that -- for me, anyway -- it all holds together as an almost seamless web. In the events it describes, it is inclusive, insightful and revealing. Yet ultimately, the book is seriously flawed, in perspective and conclusion.

A huge quantity of documented sources are drawn upon -- transcripts of xongressional hearings, grand jury records, trials, depositions, as well as hundreds of wiretaps, both legal and illegal. Russo interviewed large numbers of participants, including widows of major mobsters. There are excellent footnotes and bibliographical references. From the outset, Russo writes briskly, with a clean, colloquial vocabulary, never flashy -- nor particularly graceful. He has a habit of calling Florida "the Sunshine State," Chicago "the Windy City" and the federal government "the G" -- with no apparent sense of irony.

He begins with the origins of Prohibition and the puritanical politics of the late 19th century. There were at least 50 years of pervasive corruption leading up to Al Capone's arrival in Chicago from New York in the 1920s. In the turmoil of Prohibition and widespread bootlegging, Capone started rising and quickly became vastly rich and powerful -- and dominant. He was jailed, then died, and was followed by others who were equally vicious and successful.

The interplay between Chicago and New York, among Irish gangs and Jewish mobsters, Italians and Sicilians in the 1920s became increasingly intricate and high-powered. That led to a national commission of regional syndicates. "At its peak," Russo writes, "the Chicago Outfit employed hundreds of full-time 'associates,' and thousands of soldiers, in its quest to expand its influence from coast to coast." Mob activity in Chicago, New York, Kansas City, Florida, Los Angeles, Cuba, St. Louis, New Orleans, Philadelphia and elsewhere pervaded the U.S. economy and political structure.

The book will outrage any number of people. The involvements of Harry Truman, of Sen. Estes Kefauver, of Mayor Richard J. Daley, of various of the Kennedy family and their associates, will dismay and be defensively rebuffed. Russo writes elaborately of Joseph P. Kennedy's working for his son's election through organized crime and corrupt union associations. Russo declares flatly that without high-level Outfit mobster Murray Humphreys' "union work, and the other noted machinations, Richard Nixon would certainly have prevailed" in the forever contested Cook County vote that Russo concludes decided the 1960 presidential election.

Aggressive use of the Organized Crime Control Act in 1970 and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations device began to bring the mob under control. Much of the power, profits and evil of that era of organized crime has been succeeded by other elements -- especially by international narcotics empires.

The mobsters of Russo's book, as he presents them, killed a lot of people -- mostly their own, in internal struggles. They stole huge amounts of money -- but the largest quantities from gamblers and from unions run by people just as corrupt as they were. Almost entirely, they fought drugs -- often killing gang members who got involved in narcotics. Many of their heirs have blended into what Russo refers to as "the upperworld" -- legitimate business, in contrast to the criminal underworld.

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