VIEWPOINT;HOW CONVENIENTLY WE FORGET WHAT HOFFA REALLY WAS

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Teamsters are voting (ballots are due back Dec. 8 to be counted) for president of their huge and often troubled labor union. Up for re-election is Ron Carey, a former UPS worker who won maybe the first honest Teamsters election five years ago. Challenging Carey, a familiar Teamster name, James P. Hoffa Jr.

A good deal of pious reminiscence has been written in recent weeks about Mr. Hoffa's father, the late (it is assumed) Jimmy Hoffa, much of it rubbish.

If you thought the Kremlin rewrote history, welcome to the rehabilitation of Jimmy Hoffa.

No one can blame Hoffa Jr. for sticking up for his father and talking about him in glowing terms. What the hell, it's his old man. What is essentially phony is the sanitized Hoffa provided by journalists who've forgotten just who Jimmy Hoffa (pere) was and why he went to jail and why he may have been bumped off.

Some recent Hoffa stories portray him as a roughneck crusader for working men's rights, a heroic figure who made enemies in high places because he refused ever to back down and betray "his people." Union widows and orphans blessed his name and lit candles.

In these versions, Hoffa was a mix of Samuel Gompers and Father Christmas, Saint John of the Cross in a hard hat.

I first started writing about the Teamsters in 1956 or '57 when I covered a U.S. Senate investigating committee on labor & management wickedness. The chairman was a crusty old bird, Sen. John McClellan. The committee's chief counsel was Robert F. Kennedy. The hearings weren't limited to Teamster sins, but the Teamsters dominated them, first a rubicund old party named Dave Beck who, after he went to prison, was succeeded as president by Mr. Hoffa.

Since, in American business, pretty much nothing moves in this country without at some point being driven someplace in a truck, the Teamsters pretty much straddled not only the highways but our national economy. Eisenhower was a benign presence in the White House, and so the action was mostly on Capitol Hill and the labor rackets hearings went out over live TV with one rascal after another being summoned up and grilled.

Dramatic stuff. Watergate with Bobby Kennedy instead of Sam Ervin.

Bobby had a team of investigators, some borrowed from brother Jack's Senate staff, which included a tough Boston footballer named Kenny O'Donnell, a plump piano-playing undercover man named Pierre Salinger and some CPAs named Carmine. I was covering for Fairchild Publications and Mutual Radio. Ethel Kennedy sat next to the press table every day chewing gum and calling us all "kiddo."

Hoffa and Bobby literally, I believe, hated each other.

The beat reporters like me would meet mornings with Kennedy in his office before the hearings, again later in the day. At lunch break he'd talk about what happened that morning and answered questions. Then we had a lid put on and he did the "overnight," a new lead for p.m. papers that wouldn't be out until the next day. This all went on for a couple of years. Bobby sent you a bottle of Haig & Haig Pinch for Christmas; you got invited to McLean to play football and go swimming.

Hoffa was small, chunky, Jimmy Cagney-cocky, alternately smiling and snarling, and didn't seem to resent negative stories, preserving his hatred for Kennedy, and had us in to press briefings at Teamster headquarters across the street from the Capitol. Jimmy served excellent scotch as well; it was a great time to be a reporter. Some of the people dragged into the hearings were less amusing. One New York racketeer named Johnny Dio punched out a photographer on the Capitol steps and broke his camera.

The guts of the case against Teamster brass was that they hired goons from Organized Crime to break heads of Teamster reformers, negotiated "sweetheart contracts" with business which in effect screwed their own members (union officials were bribed to insure no strikes ever happened, no wage increases were ever asked), and looted the rank & file's pension fund.

So much for Jimmy as a crusader for the working man. Everyone was being ripped off, labor and business both. You wondered where Beck and Hoffa found time to go to the bathroom.

Beck eventually went inside and so did Hoffa. But not right away.

A first trial acquitted Jimmy when defense attorney, the sainted Edward Bennett Williams, got a predominantly black D.C. jury and then hired Joe Louis (like Hoffa, from Detroit) to drop by each day and shake Hoffa's hand in front of the jurors. It was early-Johnny Cochran and it worked. Later, Hoffa did time only to be pardoned by Nixon.

Talk about a gathering of rogues.

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