In Hoffa’s Shadow

If you are looking for a new book with which you can hunker down while you isolate yourself at home, I recommend Jack Goldsmith’s In Hoffa’s Shadow: A Stepfather, A Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth. Goldsmith is the Henry L. Shattuck Professor at Harvard Law School, co-founder of Lawfare, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Before coming to Harvard, Professor Goldsmith served as Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel from 2003-2004, and Special Counsel to the Department of Defense from 2002-2003.

I just finished reading the book over the weekend. It is of the can’t-put-it-down variety. One more “can’t” — offhand, I can’t think of another book quite like it. It combines memoir, investigative journalism, and history in a most unusual fashion. As memoir, it is an extremely self-critical and moving account of Professor Goldsmith’s relationship with his stepfather Chuckie O’Brien (his second stepfather). As investigative journalism and history, it takes up Jimmy Hoffa, law enforcement, selective prosecution, illegal surveillance, the American labor movement (Teamsters division), the Mafia, the Kennedys, and the Department of Justice (including Professor Goldsmith’s tenure there).

The book was widely reviewed in glowing terms. See, for example, Jennifer Szalai here in the New York Times, Chris Nashawaty here in the New York Times, David Garrow here in the Washington Post, and James Rosen here in the Wall Street Journal. Rosen deems the book “a monumental achievement.”

Even with the recognition accorded the book, I don’t think it has received the full credit it is due. Our friend Hugh Hewitt adopted the book as something of a cause in the Washington Post column “The unlikeliest riveting reading of the year” (this accessible link takes you to the column as posted at JWR). I’m with Hugh.

Professor Goldsmith is a frequent contributor to Lawfare. I don’t run with the Lawfare crowd, but Professor Goldsmith previewed the book for them here. He also summarized the themes of his book in the New York Times op-ed column “How ‘The Irishman’ maligns my stepfather” (highly recommended).

I have a few minuscule quibbles with the book. Professor Goldsmith seems nostalgic for the heyday of private sector labor unions. I’m not. He accordingly asserts that the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act “imposed harsh new restraints on organizing tactics.” I think they were perfectly reasonable.

In passing he also notes his friendship — it’s relevant to a key moment in his career — with James Comey. Their relationship dates to their work together at the top reaches of the (GW) Bush administration Department of Justice under conditions of extremely high stress. In an interview on the book, Professor Goldsmith sharply characterized Robert Kennedy: “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was as unselfconsciously morally self-righteous as Bobby Kennedy was and it infected everything he did.” I have never met Comey, but I think the public record supports the application of that characterization to Comey as well.

Professor Goldsmith’s loving stepfather was Chuckie O’Brien, Jimmy Hoffa’s right-hand man. The government mistakenly pursued Chuckie as a prime suspect in the murder of Hoffa over decades. The book serves as Professor Goldsmith’s repentance for his mistreatment of Chuckie, as he gives it in painful detail. He vindicates Chuckie against the devastating abuse he suffered at the hands of the government over many years in the Hoffa case. It is an incredible story.

In making Chuckie’s case against the government, Professor Goldsmith doesn’t go quite so far as Nick Carraway in his tribute to Jay Gatsby toward the end of The Great Gatsby. “They’re a rotten crowd,” Nick shouts across the lawn to Gatsby. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” Yet Nick’s tribute came to mind as I finished Professor Goldsmith’s book. It is a most unsettling book.

I wrote Professor Goldsmith on Saturday night to express my regard for the book. I told him that the ending of the book had left me rattled. He responded: “The ending — and indeed the whole book — left me rattled too!”

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