Just Call Him Mafia Don

Becky O'Malley
Friday June 14, 2019 - 04:27:00 PM

Our President is fond of giving nicknames to anyone he dislikes, which is almost everyone respectable people like.

No, delete that “our”. My late friend Joe Agos used to sit at the table in the front window of the Caffe Mediterraneum on Telegraph during the regime of Bush the Elder and scowl at the morning’s New York Times.

“So”, Joe would say. “What are The Americans doing today?” He preferred to disassociate himself from the manifest wrongdoings of his elected officials. And yet by today’s standards Bush One looks almost like a minor secular saint.

Let’s just say, then, that “the so-called” President gives derisive nicknames to his adversaries. But today I’ve thought of the perfect name for him: “Mafia Don”.

I realize there might be some pushback from the originals, who could feel that using this name insults their ancient brotherhood, and they could even be right. But Mafia Don has obviously patterned his own business dealings after the original Mafia’s management style.

This has seldom been more clearly demonstrated than when George Stephanopoulos asked him if he’d report advances from foreign governments to the FBI. 


“Who would ever call the FBI?” 

Not me, buddy, he said, never called the FBI in my whole long career. 

Wasn’t there a line about this in one of the Godfather movies, or in The Sopranos? We take care of our own problems in our own way, don’t we? Was that what the guy said? 

No one should be surprised at this behavior from a man who openly expresses his admiration for a person he’s often cited as a mentor, one of the sleaziest characters in the whole 20th century, Joe McCarthy’s counsel and later Mob lawyer Roy Cohn.  


There’s a lot of angst in the chattering classes about globalization, much of it deserved. However there’s less talk about the special kind of globalization presided over by Mafia Don and members of his family both by blood and by adoption.  

Clearly, they have allies in mobbed-up circles all over the world. It’s not just the oligarchs in the Slavic countries, where now-defrocked consiglieres Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort used to hang out. This week’s revelations about Mitch McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, reveal administration ties to the Chinese elements who inhabit the twilight zone where gangsters and capitalists overlap, memorialized in many kung-fu movies. 

And let’s not forget the rest of the sordid stories from the Trump cabinet, a parade of some of the crookedest people ever to hold high office in a country where we’ve historically had our share of corruption. These run to the good ol’ boy model, the courthouse gang if you will (Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, Rick Perry, Sonny Perdue) with a bit of Tammany Hall on the side (Mike Flynn, Rudy Giuliani). Let’s also remember the smalltime operators who like just a little graft thrown their way: e.g. Ben Carson’s fancy furniture caper. 

The lingering stench of corruption has been hanging over the White House for the last two years, and over Mafia Don himself for even longer. Unfortunately similar political corruption stories can now be found all over the world, with or without Trump ties. He seems to admire any kind of strong man in any kind of country, unabashed dictatorship or putative democracy: North Korea, Hungary, the Phillipines, Italy…you name it, if a government is crooked and someone’s making money from that, Mafia Don cheers. 

Governments come and go, but corruption persists. 

Here’s a little story. Forty years ago, more or less, I was commuting to San Francisco to work at the Bay Guardian while I was in law school. I generally took the E bus, which ended at the Transbay Terminal. Somehow I got wind of the fact that semi-dubious elements in the development industry had their eyes on the terminal, an interesting though not ideal 1939 Moderne building in a key location.  

At that time, believe it or not, magazine distribution was still a lucrative industry (Olden Days for sure). One rumor had it that The Mob controlled magazines, especially “dirty” magazines, which were big before the Internet put them out of business. A major feature of the terminal lobby was a huge magazine stand. 

Lowell Bergman, now a distinguished professor at UC’s Journalism School, was in those days the acknowledged expert in local freelance reporting circles on organized crime. I asked Lowell what he thought was happening with the terminal, and he confirmed, based partly on some legislative hearings he referred me to, that shady Mafia-type elements were likely to be involved in both real estate development and magazine distribution, and getting ahold of the terminal site would be a logical goal for them.  

With his encouragement, I wrote a modest story which the Guardian ran. The next day as I walked through the terminal to catch my bus home I was accosted by a little guy with a heavy accent. 

“I wanna talk to you,” he said. “Come into my office. I’m the manager of the magazine stand.” 

I was young and fearless (=foolish) so I met him there. He turned the deadbolt in the lock after me. 

“We never wanna see another story about that again,” he said, glowering. 

I told him I really had to leave, because a friend was waiting for me outside the office, which fortunately was true. And as it happens, even though his threat confirmed my speculation, I couldn’t find out anything else about the topic, so I never did write another story about him and his associates. Now they’re long gone, but their influence lingers. 

Fast forward to recently. Magazines are dead or dying, but the development industry lives on. In the interim, “the interests”, whoever they are, have finally managed to privatize the terminal site for an enormous building project, the Salesforce Transbay Terminal with adjacent Salesforce Tower, which includes a dysfunctional nod to the public purpose of mass transit which may never materialize as promised. Completion and occupation have been delayed because structural defects have been discovered, attributable to Chinese suppliers.  

Does any of this point to the same kind of organized crime participation anticipated 40 years ago? Maybe yes, maybe no. How would I know? 

It does not yet have a magazine stand, so there’s that. 

But what I do know is that the pattern and practice of corruption in the development industry, where the Mafia Don got his chops with help from Roy Cohn, not only lingers but has spread worldwide. The federal government is now dominated by the kind of sleazy stuff previously associated with cities like Chicago and countries like Italy.  

Does the electorate know or care? If you believe the polls, some do and some don’t, and the polls differ in their tallies. A lot of this country has learned to tolerate and even expect corruption, so might not hold it against Trump in 2020. Sad.