The 'New Left' Views the Mob

by Joe Rosenberg

"The Outfit: The Role of Chicago's Underworld
in the Shaping of Modern America"

by Gus Russo
Bloomsbury, 2001

Gus Russo is one of the welcome breed of investigative reporters spawned by Watergate. In 511 pages, he takes on "The Outfit," the Chicago crime organization popularized by Alphonse Capone. He ends up trashing just about every US President from FDR on for their tolerance of, and cooperation with, the "Underworld." He also takes on the American justice system for ignoring the lords of the "Upperworld."

Like Mario Puzo and Gay Talese, Russo makes these thugs and murderers into minor heroes, fashioning labor racketeers and fixers like Murray Humphreys and Mob boss Tony Accardo into sympathetic figures and men of honour.

He points out that while the manipulators and scammers of the Upperworld were mostly white Anglo-Saxons, the Underworld consisted of Italians, Jews and Irish. In his Afterword, Mr. Russo makes a case against what he views as the underlying greed, corruption and falsity of American justice and business, pointing out the inequality articulated and practiced by the founding fathers as well as their avarice.

Too bad Russo lets this viewpoint cloud his excellent reporting. It gets in the way of his revelations. For instance, although it is true that Harry Truman was advanced by the corrupt Pendergast machine of Kansas City, nothing I've read in even the harshest biography of Truman would suggest that HST was personally corrupt. Yet Russo believes he was.

The lessons Russo teaches cannot be ignored, despite the occasional slip-up on dates and some misguided judgements. The Outfit, and organized crime in general, have had a great influence on our political and social history.

Russo believes The Outfit had no part in the wave of assassinations that were the leitmotif of the 1960's, but he shows that the Mob was at the peak of their power in that decade. The marriage that has occurred of city/state and even federal government with both Under- and Overworld hoodlums cannot be ignored or condoned.

I am saddened that apologists for the Mob like Mr. Russo ignore the fact that these guys kill more than each other, and that once in their grip, basically honest people are forced to do indecent things. The Mob takes honest institutions like labor unions, and small businesses like laundries and dairies, and turns them into fronts. They take the output of artists like singers, actors, musicians and divert their earnings into their own pockets. And they now own a large slice of America, where they continue to wield their shadowy influence.

Overall, Russo does a great service in showing how The Outfit evolved and stretched its tentacles around our business, entertainment and political carcasses. Too bad we do not have the will or strength to drive them out.

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This story was published on August 7, 2002.