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Review: ‘Of Rats and Men’ just Goodman telling own tale

WEEKEND EDITION: Oct. 12, 2003

As he expounded on John L. Smith's new book about Oscar Goodman, a local TV reporter employed a hilariously oxymoronic phrase, calling it an "unauthorized autobiography."

It is, of course, neither.

This clearly is one of the most authorized of biographies, dedicated by Smith in part to Goodman's wife and mother. And yet it is almost autobiographical as the voices of the author and his subject often are indistinguishable. There are many extended quotes from Goodman that spread over more than a page, and Smith consistently adopts Goodman's view of a world where government prosecutors are evil, informants are the lowest of lowlifes and pornographers and killers are colorful.

"Of Rats and Men" is less a search for the truth about the Las Vegas mayor and his life than an episodic testament to Goodman's love affair with himself and both men's affection for the mob. "These are romantic characters, fascinating and intriguing characters," Smith quotes Goodman as saying about his clients, in words that could have been the author's.

This is not to say the book is a puff piece, an unblemished portrait. Goodman's critics are, intermittently, given a voice. But their presence is overwhelmed by lengthy expositions by Goodman and his friends on his brilliance, with many questions left unanswered or even unasked.

And yet, I would not be surprised if this book becomes living proof of the Law of Unintended Consequences, that the best laid plans of rats and men often go awry. Many will come away with an unfavorable impression of Goodman -- a man whose affection for his mobster clients is sickening and whose moral ethos, where snitches are scum and killers are real men, is the most transparent of rationalizations. It is a measure of Goodman's titanic ego, which Smith acknowledges, that he won't see how devastating are his own words (see sidebar on Page 5D) even though, and perhaps because, they are given so much weight by the author.

I acknowledge my biases up front -- and not just that I find the mob material tiresome and hackneyed. I believe Goodman long ago crossed over from being an engaging, maverick mayor to a buffoonish, self-aggrandizing huckster. I also have watched Smith, while he was working on the book, provide Goodman virtually uncritical coverage, including weekly faux interviews on Channel 3 that in reality are chats between friends.

The arrangement between the two men is not just symbiotic; it is unheard of. Smith mostly failed to disclose his book deal (on one rare occasion that he did, he misled his readers by calling it "unauthorized") as he wrote flattering columns about the mayor and then enlisted Goodman to do a book-signing with him, which His Honor promoted at his weekly "news" conference.

Despite his closeness to Goodman, or maybe because of it, Smith fails to provide insight into why Goodman craves adulation so much -- from where does his solipsistic nature come? Why did he choose to dedicate his life to practicing a legal alchemy to transform killers into stand-up guys? Is he a man who has lived his life in denial about what he has done? Did he think Spilotro was having high teas while he kept him out of prison? Or is he a man who, as he has said as mayor, would sanction "anything that's legal" to accomplish his goals?

Smith spends less than a tenth of the book on Goodman's childhood years. We are told, through the prism of the subject's memory, that he was a scrappy Philadelphia kid who was a ladies' man in college until he met the love of his life, Carolyn Goldmark, a Bryn Mawr girl from the upper crust of New York's Jewish society. There is a certain sweetness about their courtship that comes across, and one wishes their relationship were explored more throughout the book.

There is a disturbing quote from Carolyn Goodman, though, early in the story about a mysterious man named Jerry Rosenberg, who, Godfather-like, made Goodman an offer he couldn't refuse to represent shadowy characters for life. And yet he refused.

"We were given a chance to sell ourselves to the devil," Smith quotes Carolyn as saying. "Anything we wanted....We were both young, but we realized there was nothing in this world we would sell ourselves for."

These words drip with irony considering the life Goodman would later choose. The Faustian bargain Oscar and Carolyn Goodman made after they came to Las Vegas would have been worth delving into. The author does not.

Smith seems to buy Goodman's version that he married the mob by accident -- a recommendation to hire Goodman by a casino dealer to an international organized crime figure -- as opposed to the law enforcement view that the union was arranged by mob types back East. The much-repeated Goodman family legend that he and Carolyn arrived with $87 in their pockets is much repeated here.

Why did Goodman decide to make his bones by defending organized crime members of all types? Maybe the answer isn't that complex, maybe Occam's Razor applies. Impeached federal Judge Harry Claiborne, a former client and former friend of Goodman, told Smith that he advised the young lawyer to steer clear of mob clients ... "but by this time, Oscar had gone money crazy. His lifestyle changed. His requirement for money was great."

As he tells the story -- or lets Goodman tell it -- Smith uses tepid language to describe Goodman's seemingly ignorant odyssey through mobland. The lawyer's denial that he knew of Lefty Rosenthal's connections is "intriguing" to Smith. When Goodman tells Smith that Spilotro never missed a court date, despite a chronic heart ailment, the author notes: "It was a brand of stoicism that Goodman, an admirer of strong men, came to respect."

Welcome to Oscar's World: Those who oversaw criminal, often murderous operations that destroyed families were strong men; those who informed on the overlords of those enterprises, often the only way the feds could obtain convictions because of the code of silence, were loathsome rats.

The point of view is never in doubt. Only occasionally does Smith challenge Goodman's version of events. For instance, he writes that Goodman's "public protests to the contrary, these were not just clients. These were friends he respected." Or with his affection for Ted Binion, "Once again Goodman revealed his taste in humanity."

But these are few and far between, like trying to dilute one of Goodman's huge martinis with two drops of water. You can't taste anything but the gin. There are some memorable scenes, including when Goodman brings in a man whom a witness has just testified was killed by the lawyer's client. But most of the drama of the cases is provided by Goodman, whose self-referential narration dominates. We are told, not shown.

After Goodman's defense of mobsters comes to an end, the author's interest, like his subject's, seems to wane. As he moves into Goodman's political career, Smith becomes more overtly gushing. But before he gets there, the author thoroughly dissimulates about a documentary made of Goodman's life called "Mob Law."

Smith does not disclose his own participation in the project and provides the most benign characterization of the end of the movie when, after a confrontation with an FBI agent, Goodman says "farewell with a surprisingly cheerful, 'Drive safely.' "

But what Smith paints as Goodman's pleasant send-off has been interpreted by many who have seen the movie as not just phony, but chilling and threatening. Any reporter who has heard Goodman address him as "my friend" after being asked an even mildly hostile question knows that tone, that smile, that frightening facade. Goodman's dark side is all but ignored by Smith.

The last 100 pages of the book deal with Goodman's ascent to mayor and it is riddled with holes. Smith does not address Goodman's obvious need for redemption as the career performer sought a new stage and the author does not fully develop how transferable Goodman's skills were to the campaign and to the mayoralty. His ability to sell a jury on the innocence of a client is nothing compared to the sales job the ebullient, relentless mayor does for developing a downtown Las Vegas that has almost as imbued an image problem as La Cosa Nostra.

Smith also misses what I believe is Goodman's most impressive quality and one that has helped him in every facet of his life - his ability to size up people and immediately know their strengths and weaknesses. Be it negotiating with a federal prosecutor, glad-handing with a Costco shopper or inveigling a developer to come downtown, Goodman knows what buttons to push.

The campaign is told through the eyes of Goodman and his advisers, with few interviews conducted with his opponents and their counselors. And Smith completely misses how Goodman won a race that many, including myself, did not believe he could win: Through TV ads superbly designed by Mark Fierro, Goodman defined himself as an outsider and family man who wanted to give back to the city. By the time his opponents realized their mistake, Goodman, the most natural campaigner I have seen, had amassed such a reservoir of good will that any talk of his mob lawyer past had no impact. Smith glosses over Goodman's outrageous statements about the homeless and, worse, does not point out that the same Constitution in which he cloaked mobsters apparently did not apply to panhandlers on Fremont Street.

Smith also does not address any of the mayor's flip-flops on countless subjects, from tax breaks for developers to major league sports to a gin deal he once said would benefit the city but eventually also funneled $50,000 to his wife's private school. And he omits any mention of one of the most controversial moments of his mayoral stint -- when he was caught on tape telling his nemesis, Michael McDonald, how he admired him after publicly lambasting the councilman.

(I know first-hand of the Goodman-sided reporting herein as Smith implies my criticism of the mayor ensued because he refused to come on my television program. Yet the passage he cites as proof of my "falling out" with Goodman was written a day before one of the mayor's many appearances on "Face to Face.")

Smith concludes with a fawning epilogue that ends with the tried and trite declaration that whatever Goodman does, he "will do it his way." Whatever that means.

By the end, after the blizzard of mob figures and the zooming through Goodman's political career, I was left thinking, as I often have with Goodman the man, what might have been. This story could have been about how Goodman embodies the Las Vegas of the past, the days Smith and his subject recall so fondly, while so many people who have moved here in the last 20 years hope that the city could surmount its history and become, if not as colorful, at least a more mature, vibrant metropolis.

Many people, probably too many, think as Smith breathlessly wrote: "And who better to represent an old mob city than an old mob lawyer?" That is, he's the perfect mayor for Las Vegas.

If so: that's the problem. This article was reprinted with the permission of Las Vegas Weekly.

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