A Harvard Law Professor Examines the Hoffa Case to Make Amends

In Hoffa’s Shadow is a memoir of growing up, a reinvestigation of one of the most notorious murders in American history, and a reflection on Jimmy Hoffa’s effect on the labor movement. The first two aspects are linked by the extraordinary fact that the author is the stepson of the man most often accused of driving Hoffa to his death. The book is even more noteworthy by virtue of the not less extraordinary fact that the author is also a distinguished law professor, Jack Goldsmith of Harvard University.

Goldsmith did not have the comfortable, settled upbringing of most law professors. His father abandoned him and his beauty queen mother when he was young. His mother’s next marriage did not last long either. It was then that Chuckie O’Brien entered his life as his mother’s third husband. Having previously been the chief personal aide to Jimmy Hoffa, O’Brien brought stability and joy for the first sustained time in Goldsmith’s life. Nevertheless, as Goldsmith grew up, he became ashamed of his stepfather. O’Brien was not educated. He was not smooth. And worst of all, he had had connections to the Mafia through his own Sicilian mother, even though he steadfastly denied that the mob existed. He was not a made Mafia man, but fully bought into the mob’s “Omerta”—the refusal to give evidence and cooperate with authorities.

After college, the son then disowned his stepfather, even changing his name back to that of his absent biological father. In this beautifully written book, the greatest eloquence remains the letter that Chuckie wrote to him about how sad the name change made him feel. But for many years that eloquence was in vain. Goldsmith continued to push O’Brien out of his life, in part to help facilitate his own ascent in law and government, refusing to talk to him, and along with others even persuading his mother to divorce him, although they have continued to live together.

But Goldsmith’s attitude softened with the coming of this century. His love for his own children made him recognize the depth of O’Brien’s love for him and what it had contributed to his own life. While he never condones O’Brien’s connections to the Mafia, he also comes to recognize the excesses of government. It was Goldsmith, who as head of the Office of Legal Counsel for a short time during the George W. Bush administration, determined that the United States surveillance program created after 9/11 exceeded constitutional bounds. In the course of doing so, he came across a case in which the Court itself had judged the government had exceeded its power in keeping tabs on his stepfather. Only a law professor would find his Proustean madeleine in a judicial opinion!

Goldsmith also now realizes that the government has made his stepfather’s life hell for decades, casting him under a cloud of suspicion without bringing any charges. He thus sets out to reanalyze the Hoffa case to see if he can prove Chuckie’s claim of innocence. It is not giving much away to say that Goldsmith does not discover where Hoffa is buried. But he has used his powerful analytic skills to show that it is almost impossible to believe that his stepfather had anything to do with the murder. The timeline of his travels that day did not give Chuckie sufficient time to drive Hoffa to his death and also be at places where others saw him. The car he was supposed to have used was owned by relative of suspected mobster—the last kind of vehicle that the Mafia would have used in a hit that they must have known would draw intense FBI scrutiny. And finally, and to me most importantly, if Chuckie actually had been involved, why was he still around and not himself a rubout. He was like a family member to Hoffa, but not actually a member of the Mafia whom they would trust.

The real revelation of the book is government incompetence. Because Hoffa’s son accused Chuckie of being somehow involved in the murder in 1975, and because there were a series of events that put him in the vicinity of where Hoffa must have been abducted, the government seized on this theory to the exclusion of others for decades. And even when new lead investigators two decades later recognized that Chuckie’s culpability was implausible, the government did not publicly change course. In fact, Goldsmith shows that the government refused to publicly exonerate a sick, old man because it would mean admitting that the FBI botched the case from the beginning.

The only weak part of book is the least important—Goldsmith’s reflection on the costs of Hoffa’s corruption and consequent investigations by Bobby Kennedy and Congress into the labor movement. He attributes “the fundamental reason” for the labor movement’s decline to the “identification” in the public mind of “the entire labor movement with corruption, violence and bossism.” The mechanism of how such instances of corruption would have such a large effect is, as law professors would say, undertheorized. As a result, it does not seem to constitute an explanation powerful enough to compete with more conventional explanatory factors, like globalization and the decline of manufacturing where unions were traditionally strong and private sector service industries where they were not. I would also argue that unionism always sat uneasily with the individualism that was part of the DNA of America since its founding. Better economic times and the 1960’s renewed celebration of the individual would have undermined collective labor movements, even without Hoffa’s corruption. The same Americans who bowl alone are hard to herd into any kind of enduring associations.

This is a law professor’s quibble about a book whose main lessons are for everyone. Because of bureaucratic inertia and concern for its image, the government cannot often be expected to change course to right the wrongs it has inflicted on lone individuals, like Chuckie. But a family is a place of almost infinite renewal that allows for fundamental course correction, particularly when it is joined, as it is for Goldsmith, with a religious sense of the obligation of forgiveness and repentance for one’s own failings. More than a memoir, a true crime narrative, or an analysis of the American labor movement, this book should be understood as a celebration of kinship and a modern example of Christian atonement.