Dark Victory: Ronald Regan, MCA and the Mob – Dan E. Moldea

MoldeaOf America’s forty-six presidents that have served in office, few are as popular as Ronald Reagan (1911-2004).  The 40th President of the United States is remembered for his time in Hollywood, his term as Governor of California and a presidential administration that had its share of controversy.  The Iran-Contra scandal remains inextricably linked to Reagan and is a stark reminder of U.S. foreign policy gone wrong.  The fallout in Central America from Washington’s influence and interference can still be felt to this day.  Reagan is long gone from office and deceased since 2004.  However, his name can still be found in conversations about politics in America, when discussing conservatism and the decline of Soviet influence across the globe.  Although known to be a fierce conservative, Reagan was able to use his actor’s skills to conceal this from the public.  But historians know all too well that there was dark side to the life of Reagan before and during his time in office.  Journalist Dan Moldea takes another look at Reagan, paying close attention to his time in Hollywood as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), its dealings with the Music Corporation of America (MCA) and the Italian American mafia.

I should point out that the book is not intended to be a full analysis of Reagan’s role as president.  And although Moldea does discuss Reagan’s time as president towards the end of the book, the focus remains on the early days of Hollywood and radio, where the mafia had infiltrated studios and strong-arm tactics by independent companies had become accepted behavior.  To remove all doubt that the book has a “happy ending”, Moldea lays out the premise early on:

“These records show that Reagan, the president of SAG and an FBI informant against Hollywood communists, was the subject of a federal grand jury investigation whose focus was Reagan’s possible role in a suspected conspiracy between MCA and the actors’ union. According to Justice Department documents, government prosecutors had concluded that decisions made by SAG while under Reagan’s leadership became “the central fact of MCA’s whole rise to power.”

After establishing the premise, the author discusses the formation of multiple corporations that became titans in radio and later in the film industry.  The formation of MCA is explained and that of the SAG where Reagan would find a home through his first wife Jane Wyman (1917-2007).  The information provided by Moldea is just what history buffs will be looking for.  And what he explains highlights just how far film and radio have come.  But in the 1920s, television was still in its infant stages and for the average artist, radio was the place to be.  In the 1930s, film started to gain in popularity and in 1933, the Screen Actors Guild was formed to give artists protection from what was clearly a racket. The ramifications of the organization’s creation are explained by Moldea and the information will aide readers later in the book as the U.S. Department of Justice sets its sights on film and radio.  Following his discharge from the military after World War II, Reagan soon found his calling in film and his marriage to Jane Wyman opened the doors to successful careers on the silver screen and in government, in ways that may not be fully understood.  As the book shows, there were many suspicious actions taken by Reagan as director of the SAG with regards to the Music Corporation of America, known to be affiliated with gangsters and other powerful figures not against breaking all rules.  The most infamous to whom we are introduced is a lawyer named Sidney Korshak (1907-1996), believed to be one of the most powerful men in Hollywood during his time.  Korshak is just one of many dark figures in the book that includes mobsters Alphonse “Al” Capone (1899-1947) and Johnny Roselli (1905-1976).  Moldea leaves no stone un-turned as he explores the many dark connections between Reagan and a whole cast of shadowy characters.

The crux of the case for Reagan’s implied dark dealings comes in the form of an unrestricted waiver given to MCA, permitting it to retain artists and other stars without conditions normally enforced by the SAG.  Whether Reagan himself decided to do so may be lost to history but the action was so unusual that it attracted the attention of the anti-trust division of the Department of Justice.  Regan himself gave testimony and readers might find it be questionable to say the least.  The relevant portions of his statements are included so that the words come directly from Reagan himself.  It is left to readers to decide what Reagan may or may not have left out.  And while there is a lot of smoke, some may feel that there is no fire or “smoking gun”. But what is clear is that what transpired between the SAG and MCA was anything but ordinary.  The true story might be even more surprising and suspicious than the one Moldea has told here.

During his time in office, Reagan became the star for conservatism and his administration shifted the nation towards the right politically.  One of the reasons for his conservatism is explained here and it was something I was not previously aware of.  Further, the story here shows again that the administration of John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) was more of a threat to those with hidden agendas than people realize.  While campaigning, Reagan called for getting tough on crime and fixing America’s cities.  He once stood in the burning rubble of the South Bronx and told residents that he was trying to help them, but he could not do anything unless he was elected.  Well, he was elected and his goals to fix America and get tough on crime did not go exactly as most voters thought. In fact, there were actions by his administration that stood in stark contrast to the good-natured poster boy image that the former actor portrayed publicly.  Moldea is even more blunt his assessment:

“The Reagan administration then severely curtailed the investigative and enforcement abilities of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Justice Department’s Strike Forces Against Organized Crime—as part of its program to get the government off the backs of the people. The administration also attempted but failed to dismantle the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms of the Treasury Department, which had been extremely effective in the war against organized crime but had been opposed by the Reagan-allied National Rifle Association.”

Older readers may agree or disagree with the statement, but I do think Moldea is fairly accurate in his assessment.  I strongly advise those who find this to be a good read to also purchase Malcolm Byrne’s Iran Contra: Regan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power, which is an excellent analysis of the hostage for arms matter and money transfer to rebels in Central America.  It can be argued that no administration is without its scandals or embarrassing moments and that is true.  However, the depth of the scandals is what typically sets them apart.  In the case of Ronald Reagan, we are forced to confront two vastly different images of his life.  The public image of the easy going, jolly natured Commander-In-Chief is still widely accepted. But to independent journalists and researchers, the private Ronald Reagan kept many dark secrets.  Some undoubtedly went with him to the grave but others have been revealed as we can see here in this intriguing account by Dan Moldea.


The Hoffa Wars: The Rise and Fall of Jimmy Hoffa – Dan E. Moldea

Hoffawars The disappearance of James Riddle Hoffa (1913-1975) still captivates audiences as shown by the success of Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman starring Robert Dinero as Frank Sheeran (1920-2003) and Al Pacino as Hoffa.  The film shows Scorcese at his best but the story told by Sheeran is known to be full of discrepancies.  Further, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has never acknowledge Sheeran as being one of Hoffa’s killers.  Putting that aside, the movie is done very well and one of the rare times when Robert Dinero and Pacino have appeared on screen together.  But there is far more to the Hoffa story that is typically remember because of his fall from grace and disappearance on July 30, 1975.  I personally do not believe his body will ever be found and those who know what happened to him are either deceased or taking that secret with them to their graves.  However, in examining the Hoffa case,  we can focus on why he was killed which is just an important as how he might have been killed.  Dan Moldea has spent years covering the Hoffa case and is considered to be one of the best sources of information on the former leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (“the Teamsters”).  And the result is a spellbinding story that peels the layers back uncovering a story that is nothing short of clash of the titans. 

I find that even today there is still a lot of confusion regarding the Teamsters and what exactly did happen when Hoffa was in power. In the preface to the book, we get a fitting summary that sets the tone for what is to follow:

“The Hoffa Wars tells an important story: how a potentially great force for good—the unionization of America’s truckers and warehouse laborers—was captured by gangsters and converted into a monster that robbed its members of their right to a fair wage and pension, robbed businessmen of their right to a free marketplace and clamped a high tax on American consumers every time they went to the cash register.”

When I first read these words, I admit that I had to reconcile them with the image I have had in my head of Hoffa who is typically portrayed as a benevolent figure that only wanted the best for Teamster members.  And while I have no doubt that he truly believed in the union, I also have to acknowledge that there was many dark secrets about the Teamsters hidden from public light.  As readers will see in the book, behind the scenes there was a power struggle taking place as the deposed king tried to reclaim his thrown.  Moldea leaves no stone unturned and the more unsavory facts about Hoffa’s reign come to light, shattering the myth of the “clean as a whistle”  union president who simply loves ice cream as portrayed by Pacino on screen.  The real Hoffa was a hard-nosed leader who had been through his share of battles in the process of unionization.  And the infiltration of organized crime and politicians proved to be too seductive even for him. The author untangles the complicated web so that we can see just how deep in bed the Teamsters found itself with the Italian-American  Mafia. 

Hoffa was in the process of writing his autobiography at the time of his death. I previously reviewed that book called Hoffa: The Real Story.  Therein, Hoffa does portray himself a fairly positive light. Moldea is not a fan of the book and views it as nothing more than a self-serving account.  I will leave it to readers to decide on their own but I can say that it is a good read to learn more about Hoffa’s early life.  What is clear here, is that Hoffa’s death removed any chance of him completing what surely would have been an explosive best-seller.  And it undoubtedly would have earned him even more enemies who wanted him removed from Teamster affairs permanently. 

The nexus of the book is Hoffa’s battles with Rolland McMaster (1914-2017) and Frank Fitzsimmons (1908-1981).  Moldea takes a close look at Local 299, which dragged Hoffa into an ugly power struggled that developed in the wake of Hoffa’s convictions for fraud by the U.S. Department of Justice.  The verdicts were the culmination of the “Get Hoffa Squad” organized by former United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968). The author provides a recap of their battle which was nothing short of savage.  McMaster, who had his own dark past, figures prominently into the story and provides valuable information to Moldea regarding what was happening as Hoffa became the tyrant who would not let go of power. And Hoffa’s successor, Fitzsimmons, has always been a person of high interest not only for taking over the Teamsters in Hoffa’s absence but also for his close alignment with the administration of President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994), whose connections to the underworld are interesting to say the least. 

Historians are well aware of the bad blood between the Kennedys and Hoffa. And it has been suggested that Hoffa was part of the plot that took John F. Kennedy’s (1917-1963) life in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.  And although there is no smoking gun to be found here, Hoffa was not sad to hear that Kennedy had been shot. Whether he actively participated in the plot to kill Kennedy will always be up for debate.  Much of the information revealed in this sotry comes from Ed Partin (1924-1990) whose testimony was once used to convict Hoffa.  And on an even darker note, Robert Kennedy was also the target of assassins, years before his murder on June 5, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California.  The story here by Moldea is quite disturbing and apparently, John Kennedy himself had been told of Hoffa’s thirst for revenge.  Exactly how Kennedy found out is not known but he did disclose it to reporter Ben Bradlee (1921-2014) as we learn in the book:  

“The President’s close friend, Benjamin Bradlee, who was then with Newsweek, noted in an entry in his journal for February 11 that the night before, at a private dinner party, the President had confided that Hoffa’s Teamsters had planned to send an assassin to Washington to kill his brother.” 

We know today that Robert Kennedy was not murdered while in Washington but the threat was very real. Robert Kennedy ultimately got his man and Hoffa was forced to stew in prison while the union he felt belonged to him, fell under the control of others.  And it was a position that Hoffa could not accept.  His obssesion with reclaiming the throne would have deadly repercussions later as Hoffa became suspicious of nearly all of his former subordinates. The list of enemies he had made continued to grow and dissent had resulted in splinter groups opposed to his dominance. Their stories are also included here as the story develops, showing that Hoffa was not idolized by all who knew him. 

The Hoffa story is further complicated by the association between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and organized crime figures.  This part of the book may surprise some readers and as Moldea hints, it might have played a role in Hoffa’s death for reasons that have flown under the radar for years.  At this point in the book, we step into different waters as Jack Ruby (1911-1967), David Ferrie (1918-1967) and Sam Giancana (1908-1975) take center stage in plots to remove Cuban President Fidel Castro (1926-2016) from power.  There is a wealth of information but I feel that it is only the tip of the iceberg.  But Moldea did a good job of keeping the story streamlined and focused on Hoffa as the CIA-Mafia plot to kill Castro can easily be a book on its own.  This is Hoffa’ story and these events are only part of the full account. 

Readers should be prepared for many revelations about Hoffa’s life and the Teamsters.  And to be clear, there is no happy ending here.  This is a dark story filled with imposing figures whose lust for power and money knew no bounds. It is a story of paranoia, betrayal and murder.  And as Hoffa, McMaster and Fitzsimmons engage in their three-way dance, the Teamsters’ is forced to hold on while the saga plays out.   Unquestionably, Hoffa’s murder changed everything and Moldea goes through that day to piece together Hoffa’s final moments.  He does not profess to know who killed Hoffa but does explore possible scenarios.  Charles ‘Chucky” O’Brien (1933-2020) had been the focus of attention for decades after it was alleged he drove Hoffa to his final meeting where he was killed. O’Brien always maintained innocence and the jury is still out on whether he set up his former mentor.  Moldea explores his possible role as well but stops short of making accusations against O’Brien.  It is possible that the FBI knows who did kill Hoffa but has never said due to lack of physical evidence and a corpse. The Hoffa disappearance will never fade away as researchers continue to revisit the life of a man who cemented his place in American labor history.  If you are looking for a balanced report of the Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa and his downfall, this is a good place to start.  Good read.