Wednesday, July 23, 2014

History Detectives Special Investigations: “Who Killed Jimmy Hoffa?” (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The “Who Killed Jimmy Hoffa?” program which followed suffered from its origins as an episode of the series History Detectives: Special Investigations (a pretentious subtitle which basically means the established cast of the “History Detectives” program spends an entire episode on one famous incident in history rather than investigating a whole host of trivial items in each show) and the fact that the history detectives themselves — Tukufu Zuberi, Kaiama Glover and Wes Cowan — get way too much screen time, and are singularly boring people to boot. Nonetheless, the show offers quite a lot of documentary and archive material, ranging from footage of Hoffa addressing the Teamsters Union and being interviewed on TV to audio from the Nixon White House tapes of Nixon, John Mitchell and Charles Colson discussing the controversial pardon Hoffa was given in 1971 that imposed on him a ban on union activity for nine years. To recap: Hoffa went to work for the Teamsters in 1939 in Detroit (at a time when the socialists Farrell Dobbs and the Dunne brothers who had built the union were being pushed out by organized crime) and, at least according to this program, was Mob-connected from the beginning. When Hoffa was elected president in 1957 he hired Frank Sheeran as a hit man and literally eliminated his competition within the union — and he was regularly investigated by John and Robert Kennedy, first when John was a U.S. Senator and Robert a staff member for the Senate Labor Committee, then when John was President and Robert was Attorney General, determined to prosecute Hoffa for something and ultimately successful at convicting him for jury tampering in a previous trial and sentencing him to prison.

Then Richard Nixon became president, and in 1971 he decided to pardon Hoffa — but, at the behest of Hoffa’s successor as Teamsters president, Frank Fitzsimmons, imposed the ban on Hoffa rejoining the union. According to Hoffa’s own account, in an autobiography he completed just before he disappeared but which wasn’t published until afterwards (and on which his collaborator was, of all people, Oscar Fraley, who’d also co-written the autobiography of U.S. Prohibition agent Elliot Ness that became the basis for the hit TV series The Untouchables), the ban on his union activity was inserted into the pardon deal at the very last minute, and he almost refused to sign it on that basis. The program argues that Hoffa was killed at the behest of Mob boss Russell Bufalino, for a bizarre reason: Bufalino, the so-called “Quiet Don” who made as much of a fetish of avoiding publicity as Al Capone had made of embracing it, was worried that the Church Committee hearings on CIA abuses would reveal information about how the Mafia had worked in collaboration with the CIA to attempt to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro — so he went out of his way to eliminate the three people who knew the most about that collaboration: Sam Giancana (who had shared his mistress Judith Campbell with President Kennedy and Frank Sinatra), Johnny Roselli and Jimmy Hoffa. It’s a reasonably persuasive case even though it’s something of a head-scratcher — though as someone who’s long believed the Mafia killed Kennedy because they were mad at him for not following through with air support for the Bay of Pigs invasion (the Mob lost a lot of money when Castro took over Cuba and deprived them of the lucrative revenues from the casinos there), the idea that Hoffa may have been yet another victim of the government/Mafia connection over Castro seems all too believable.