The Mafia’s President: Nixon and the Mob, by Don Fulsom

Reviewed by Wallace H. Johnson

I read with great interest the just released The Mafia’s President: Nixon and the Mob, written by Don Fulsom, a White House pool reporter through many presidencies, who professed to be present both during the glory and dark days of the Nixon Administration. He suggests that Nixon was “mobbed up” and very much influenced by the La Cosa Nostra, or as we have come to call it—the Mafia.

Beginning way back in the epic age of immigration, an Italian “gang” took hold in the United States and exerted great influence in our major cities. How this happened is a story in itself, but not this story. As Fulsom unfolds the story, Richard Nixon was very much under the influence of a variety of Mafia leaders from the earliest days of his political career straight through the presidency, when that connection affected a variety of his actions in the White House.

Alas, there is nothing of substance to comment on in a book that applies an uncritical criterion to any gossip that supports its conspiratorial claims, and which unaccountably bears the hitherto discerning Thomas Dunne imprint.

I too was present during many of the glory as well as the dark days of the Nixon Administration, beginning my career as an Organized Crime Attorney in the Department of Justice in the 1960’s and ultimately heading the Organized Crime Strike Force in Miami, Florida. Thereafter, I served as Minority Counsel on the Senate Judiciary Criminal Laws Subcommittee, and then was Associate Deputy Attorney General and head of the legislative office back in the Justice Department.

So I approached Mr. Fulsom’s book with great personal interest, looking for information that may not have come to my attention while performing my official duties some fifty years ago. What I found is a book based on opinion, supposition, and inference with virtually no direct evidence to support its extravagant conclusions. Much of the book’s content is devoted to the JFK assassination and a strained attempt to tie Nixon to it, suggesting that he and other presidents knew more than they let on.

Alas, there is nothing of substance to comment on in a book that applies an uncritical criterion to any gossip that supports its conspiratorial claims, and which unaccountably bears the hitherto discerning Thomas Dunne imprint. But the publication of this book does allow one to reflect on Nixon’s successes with some too often overlooked aspects of his domestic agenda. Nixon was elected President in 1968 at least in part by running on a law and order plank, and campaigning against the liberal Warren Supreme Court.

Based on my personal knowledge and activities, I am able to reflect on the activities leading to bringing the Mafia under control, that were directly the result of actions taken by Nixon during his years as President. The result of his work, focus and policies led to the virtual eradication of the Mafia. Would “the Mafia’s President” strive so hard to disband it and eliminate its influence in our society? I think not, but let me explain why.

The 1960’s were a time of great change and cultural development in America. The decade began with the presidency of John Kennedy, with his brother Robert serving as his Attorney General. The decade ended with the Presidency of Richard Nixon, with John Mitchell as his Attorney General. These “bookend” Attorneys General were both dedicated crime fighters and acted as “prime” minister to their respective president. Robert Kennedy originated the “Get Hoffa Squad,” which morphed into the Organized Crime Section, acting eventually through the Organized Crime Strike Forces. Leadership for these activities remained much the same under both Attorneys General, with William Hundley, aided by Henry Petersen, spearheading this effort during the entire decade.

The Strike Force approach is not unlike the work we see today being done by a Special Prosecutor, with the targeted individual being the goal, and not necessarily the enforcement of one law or another. Robert Kennedy’s legislative efforts aimed against Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa produced a series of criminal laws, the primary being “travel in or use of an interstate facility in furtherance of an unlawful activity,” allowing the Feds to get around the very inconvenient truth that local governments could be “in the pocket” of the mob.

In like fashion, the Strike Forces worked to ensure that the Department of Justice field operatives —United States Attorneys— worked to a common goal within the justice system to concentrate resources on the national priorities and not be subjected unduly to local influences. Attorneys from Main Justice worked in the field beside assigned representatives from virtually every pertinent investigative agency. In my situation in Miami, this included the FBI, IRS-Intelligence, Customs Bureau, Immigration, the Florida Bureau of Law Enforcement, and several lesser known agencies.

Unburdened by any intellectual or historical rigor, Fulsom blatantly and blithely states that “Like Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover was in the hip pocket of America’s godfathers.” The Bureau was entirely responsive to the direction of its still legendary Director, and my own experience in Miami disproves the notion that the Bureau was not dedicated to investigating the Mafia, with major case and investigative work being done by FBI Special Agents Ed Sharp, Warren Welsh and Ralph Hill. These dedicated agents brought cases against known mobsters for extortion, bribery and gambling — all prosecuted in the Southern District of Florida. Any and every suggestion of public impropriety was carefully examined and appropriate action was taken.

A well-published and professional investigative reporter, Hank Messick, supplemented the work done by the professional investigators in Florida and provided that double check usually conducted by an independent press. It is through this lens that I find most interesting Fulsom’s suggestion that based on his pool trips to Key Biscayne he “felt” that something was very wrong!

But the problem was serious and ingrained, and the too limited and too brief efforts of the Kennedy Justice Department proved inadequate, with the Mafia continuing to grow and to insinuate itself into the fabric of American society. Further action was necessary and further action was high on the agenda of the Nixon Justice Department.

One of the first legislative actions taken after the 1968 election was to submit what ultimately became the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. This legislation finally provided law enforcement the tools to prosecute and take out the mob’s leadership. The long-time crime fighting Senator from Arkansas, Democrat John McClellan, and his Republican partner from Nebraska, Roman Hruska, provided Senate leadership, with Representative Richard Poff in the House, all working in partnership with Attorney General John Mitchell to get this job done. Robert Blakey, as Majority Counsel to the Criminal Laws Subcommittee was the intellectual sparkplug that made this all happen.

The Nixon Organized Crime legislation is unquestionably the most comprehensive crime bill passed in history, with thirteen titles addressing the use of grand juries and evidence gathering. What became its most successful provision is now commonly referred to as RICO, but more formally called the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupted Organizations Act.

The combined effect of this multi-tiered legislation gave prosecutors the ability to penetrate the mob and prosecute its leadership. Professor Blakey stated in recent forum sponsored by the National Archives that

“The wiretap statute of 1968, and the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, and you put them together, and what difference did it make? We created a witness protection program so that people would be willing to testify against organized crime – they would be protected; we created the RICO act which authorizes investigations and prosecutions of organized crime; we had wiretapping and electronic surveillance — which is an electronic substitution for witness testimony; we had the sentencing guidelines that authorized and required appropriate sentences….

You put those things together — we had the following impact: From 5,000 members none outside of New York, and of the five families in New York there are two today that are good…It’s just not there anymore….”

“It’s just not there anymore” and it’s not there because of the actions of Richard Nixon, his Attorney General, and Nixon Justice. If more attention were paid to the generally shoddy state of Nixon scholarship, where antipathy too often trumps integrity, someone at Thomas Dunne’s shop should have signaled that Mr. Fulsom’s fulminations are in the unsupportable and unhappy tradition of David Irving and J. H. Hatfield.

Indeed, Nixon should receive significant credit for bringing down the mob and can rightfully be given credit for the good work done by so many during his presidency, who worked in a non-partisan fashion for the betterment of society.

Wallace H. Johnson began his career as a special attorney in the Organized Crime Section of the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice, ultimately leading the Organized Crime Task Force in Miami, Florida. He was a minority counsel of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Criminal Laws and Procedures under ranking minority member, Senator Roman Hruska. He became Associate Deputy Attorney General, and then joined the White House Congressional Relations Office as Special Assistant to President Nixon. He also served as Assistant Attorney General of the Lands and Natural Resources Division. He is now an attorney in private practice in Wyoming.