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July 16, 2020

‘A Weird Skein of Events’: Conservative Lobbying and Jimmy Hoffa’s 1971 Commutation

A portrait of Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa upon his commutation, Lewisburg Federal Prison, December 23rd, 1971 (Photo Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images).

By David Kurlander

Jimmy Hoffa is ubiquitous. Last year, Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed The Irishman offered a booming overview of the trucker labor union leader’s epic downfall, from his war with the Kennedy-era Department of Justice over his alleged mafia ties, to his imprisonment in 1967 on jury tampering charges, to his still-unsolved disappearance four years after his commutation. Harvard Law School professor (and Stay Tuned guest) Jack Goldsmith explored his stepfather Chuckie O’Brien’s relationship with Hoffa in his recent memoir-history In Hoffa’s Shadow, offering in the process a deep-dive into the Nixon administration’s taped conversations surrounding Hoffa’s prison release.   

Both Scorsese and Goldsmith position Hoffa’s commutation as a quid pro quo with his Teamsters successor, Frank Fitzsimmons. “Fitz” was extremely close to Nixon’s Watergate “hatchet man,” Chuck Colson, and played golf with OMB Director George Schultz and Attorney General John Mitchell. He also toed the Nixon line on Vietnam and drugs and seemed to the administration far safer than the mercurial Hoffa. Fitz, who until Hoffa’s imprisonment had a reputation as a somewhat bumbling aide, became, according to Goldsmith, “increasingly Machiavellian.” Fitz and Nixon’s advisors orchestrated a release contingent on Hoffa stepping down from his Teamsters presidency and staying out of all Union business until 1980. That way, the administration had Fitz in pocket and Hoffa would be both out of prison and politically neutralized. 

Hoffa stepped down in July 1971. Within an hour, Nixon had traveled from his Southern White House in Key Biscayne to the sparkling-new Playboy Plaza Hotel, where he—for the first time in any presidency since 1948—appeared in public with the President of the feared, mob-affiliated Teamsters. And when Hoffa finally got his commutation, just before Christmas 1971, he was indeed barred from “direct or indirect management of any labor organization.” Hoffa decidedly blamed Fitz, writing in his 1975 autobiography, “He knew damned well that when I stood for reelection, he didn’t have the chance of an ice cube in hell…I charge Fitzsimmons with political influence peddling.”

The Hoffa commutation, however, went far beyond Frank Fitzsimmons’ Brutus-like—but ultimately predictable—betrayal, and into the Stone-like realm of surreal conservative personae and fake news.   

First, there was Audie Murphy, the famed World War II hero who had been wounded thrice and killed 240 Nazis. By the late 1960s, after a successful career as a Western actor and military representative, Murphy was in dire straits due to PTSD and gambling addiction. He had lost $260,000 in Algerian oil holdings after the Six Day War. He even went to trial after beating a German shepherd trainer who had ripped him off. At this nadir, in 1970, Murphy came to the public defense of Lieutenant William Calley, a prime perpetrator of the My Lai Massacre, after Calley was convicted of killing 22 Vietnamese women and children. Murphy suggested: “I’m not so sure that in those clays, having been indoctrinated to a fever pitch, I might not have committed the same error.”

Just after his Calley advocacy, Murphy took a further leap into the political breach. Through a mob-affiliated loan shark in New Orleans, he got in touch with Edward Partin, a Teamster who had given the central testimony in the 1963 trial that sent Hoffa to prison. Back then, Partin had dramatically confessed to taking $20,000 in exchange for rigging the jury in an earlier Hoffa case. Now—Murphy’s sources said—Partin was ready to recant his testimony and instead point the finger at Bobby Kennedy’s DOJ as having coerced him into telling the story.

Murphy helped orchestrate a 31-page signed recantation from Partin, although the specifics of the supposed DOJ set-up remained almost laughably vague. The war hero also managed to enlist fellow actor, Senator George Murphy (no relation) to shuttle the affidavit to the President. But as the drama was heating up, Murphy died in a private plane crash in Virginia while touring a home supplies factory he wanted to invest in. Legendary columnist Jack Anderson—no stranger to lurid happenings—referred to the Murphy drama as a “weird skein of events”   

Before the crash, Murphy’s work with Partin had brought him into conversation with another node of conservative influence in the Hoffa saga: the Manchester, New Hampshire Union Leader, and its reactionary boss, William Loeb. Back in 1962, Loeb had taken out a $2 million loan from one of the Teamsters’ legendary pension funds. He thereafter showed virulent loyalty to the imprisoned Hoffa, despite Loeb’s aggressive dismissal of all other labor unions. Loeb had jumped on the Partin story, sending out his chief investigative reporter, Arthur Egan, to push the star witness’s claims. Murphy’s untimely end and Partin’s clear credibility issues ultimately sunk the story. 

A year after the collapse of the Partin gambit, in 1972, Loeb published the infamous “Canuck letter,” a fabricated letter-to the-editor crafted by Nixon’s re-election team suggesting that one of Nixon’s rivals, Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, was bigoted toward French Canadians. The letter provoked Muskie into a campaign-hurting, emotional denial. Veteran TIME journalist Jonathan Z. Larsen suggested in November that Loeb, not Fitzsimmons, was at the center of the Hoffa commutation quid pro quo: Loeb’s help against Muskie was, in Larsen’s view, the main government “get” for letting Hoffa out. To bring things full circle: A 20-year-old Roger Stone played a peripheral role on the Nixon campaign team that wrote the incendiary letter.

Whether Hoffa’s commutation had its roots in the work of Fitzsimmons, Murphy, Loeb, or another colorful Hoffa affiliate on Washington merry-go-round, the case’s reactionary gamesmanship and image-making provides a veritable origin story for the current Stone drama. 

Check out Jack Goldsmith’s January appearance on Stay Tuned, in which he discusses the Hoffa case. Former Hoffa prosecutor Walter Sheridan’s anguished The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa (1972) offers the Kennedy-adjacent perspective on the saga. For more about the triumph and tragedy of Audie Murphy, read Don Graham’s No Name on the Bullet (1989). And for a rollicking glimpse into the world of William Loeb, read Kevin Cash’s Who the Hell is William Loeb? (1975).

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