Rules of the Game

Of all the weasel words used to keep journalists out of courtrooms, “lore” is one of the more uncommon and intriguing. Chicago author James McManus might have thought he was putting the word to excellent use in his recent best-seller, Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker. Apparently not.

Besides describing his own plunge into the depths of the world’s most famous poker game, where he won a quarter million dollars, McManus told the sordid story of its former host, the late Ted Binion–“a man with whom I was afraid I had too much in common. Both of us were middle-aged married guys with a weakness for gambling, alcohol, recreational drugs, nubile women.”

In 2000, right around the time of the World Series of Poker McManus sat in on, a former stripper named Sandra Murphy and a male friend of hers were being convicted of conspiring to murder Binion, her rich, dissolute boyfriend, two years earlier. Where McManus ran into trouble was in laying out the background to this sensational crime. Much of the background was the story of another sensational crime, which McManus began in 1979 with “Texas narcotics kingpin Jimmy Chagra…on trial in Texas for heroin trafficking.” Chagra was known to Binion, his brother Jack, and father Benny. By McManus’s account, “Jack, Ted, and Benny convened in Booth 1 of the Horseshoe coffee shop with Oscar Goodman, the hyperaggressive young Philadelphia attorney representing the accused. The upshot of that meeting was a $50,000 contract for Charles Harrelson (actor Woody’s father) to assassinate U.S. District judge John Wood–or so the lore has it.”

On May 29, 1979, “Maximum John” Wood, the presiding judge in Chagra’s trial, was shot in the back and killed in San Antonio. “Chagra’s case was…declared a mistrial, the defendant went free, and young Oscar Goodman’s reputation was made in the bargain.” Charles Harrelson was sentenced to life in prison. But “admissible evidence that a hit had been authorized?” McManus told us with studied vagueness. “None.”

Goodman had been Ted Binion’s lawyer, and once upon a time he’d been Tony Spilotro’s. A famous hit man from Chicago, Spilotro attended the bat mitzvah of Goodman’s daughter, and Goodman was heard to say that he’d rather have her date him than some FBI agent. The mob had sent Spilotro to Las Vegas to keep the casinos in line; he made such a mess of that assignment that in 1986 he and his brother were bludgeoned to within an inch of their lives, then buried alive in an Indiana cornfield. The story was told in Nicholas Pileggi’s Casino, and when Martin Scorsese turned the book into a movie, Oscar Goodman showed up playing himself.

In 1999 Goodman was elected mayor of Las Vegas. When McManus’s book appeared this spring, with its suggestion that Goodman had plotted to murder Judge Wood, the mayor said he was appalled. He called the story an “outrageous falsehood” and sent his lawyer to see McManus’s publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I’d hoped McManus would tell me if he stood by his lore, or if he’d allow that there’s more than enough lore to go around in Las Vegas and he might have come across a bad piece of it. But FSG and Goodman quickly reached a settlement last month, and no one’s allowed to talk about what it was. All anyone will say is that the passage will be deleted from future editions of Positively Fifth Street–a paperback edition’s a certainty–and that the publisher sent Goodman a letter of regret that will appear as an advertisement in the July 6 New York Times Book Review.

I caught up with McManus last weekend at a poker tournament at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. He apologized for being unable to say much of anything. “I’m under very, very strict orders,” he said.

Didn’t you make sure there were no guarantees anything was true? I asked.

“I said it was ‘lore,'” he agreed, “and I also said there was no admissible evidence it happened. Their position was that it could imply there was inadmissible evidence.”

John L. Smith, a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal who’s written a book about the Binion murder and is researching a biography of Goodman, wrote June 11 that he’s never heard a single story linking Goodman to the Wood murder. In a later column Smith said the murder conspiracy wasn’t the only thing McManus got wrong. “Jimmy Chagra,” he wrote, “was called a heroin trafficker, but in reality he worked with cocaine and marijuana.” And he said Charles Harrelson was offered $250,000, not $50,000, to murder Judge Wood.

Before Positively Fifth Street, McManus, who teaches writing at the School of the Art Institute, wrote mostly novels and poetry. “He’s a great novelist,” says Cathy Scott, another Las Vegas reporter. “He’s a great fiction writer. He’s got a way with words.” But Scott, a freelancer who also wrote a book on the Binion murder and has her own list of details she thinks McManus screwed up, thinks “he’s not quite in the genre of nonfiction yet, where you actually have to base it on actual court documents and police reports and interviews with people who will use their names.”

“I don’t think I violently disagree with that,” said McManus. “I only attended the trial the last day. I did my best to get the facts right. But I was also relying on published accounts, and sometimes there are contradictions. I definitely was in a participatory mode rather than in a reporter mode.”

Wise Asses

It’s hard to believe that repugnance had nothing to do with Antonin Scalia’s scornful dissent from last week’s 6-3 Supreme Court verdict on sodomy or with the Wall Street Journal’s finger wagging at the court’s “odd understanding of its judicial obligations.” Scalia said he had nothing against homosexuals “promoting their agenda through normal democratic means”; the Journal, echoing Clarence Thomas, said that if it were a Texas legislator it would vote to repeal the Texas law under which the case’s two defendants were arrested. Back in the days of jim crow, blacks had many such friends in the press, all counseling patience.

What the court did was give police one fewer reason to break down our doors. Scalia excoriated the majority for taking sides “in the culture war” and endorsing the “so-called homosexual agenda.” It was an odd choice of words, since Scalia obviously thinks there’s nothing so-called about it. At any rate, the court had done just what he accused it of doing.

We saw the same thing happen back in 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education played into the black agenda, with its focus on education, integration, and opportunity. If he’d sat on that Warren court, Scalia would have advised it not to stick its nose in the nation’s culture war, not when integration was far from being an overwhelming national sentiment and southern legislatures might in due time act on their own. So went Scalia’s argument against striking down Texas’s antisodomy statute, and the Journal embarrassed itself by buying it. “Such highly charged issues are better addressed by legislatures representing voters than by judicial edict,” stated the editorial that ran on June 27. “The genius of democracy is that it has the ability through debate to achieve consensus and settle these disputes over time.”

The genius of American democracy is that it can ask courts and commissions to make choices legislators don’t have the guts to make. The same Journal editorial also took the court to task for remanding instead of settling a case dealing with the free speech rights of corporations. The Journal showed much more sympathy for Nike, the defendant in this case, than for John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner, the gay men Texas arrested, convicted, and fined $200.

Though the district attorney who prosecuted Garner and Lawrence explained that “the best way to get rid of a bad law is to enforce it,” to the Journal, Nike was an important First Amendment case, Lawrence v. Texas merely a culture flap. “The High Court’s interventions only keep the cultural wars going,” wrote the Journal. “That’s surely the lesson of Roe v. Wade, which has poisoned abortion politics (and increasingly judicial politics) for 30 years.” There’s a dreamy insistence on the part of many conservatives and even some liberals that without Roe a peaceful state-by-state consensus would have evolved on the subject of abortion, with Americans who think it’s murder and Americans who think it’s a woman’s right shaking hands and agreeing to live and let live–maybe with a latter-day Missouri Compromise sealing the deal. Without Roe presidential candidates and Supreme Court nominees would never have come under pressure to declare themselves on the matter of abortion, because there’d have been no call for national uniformity.

The Journal warned the “cultural victors…that judicial whimsy swings both ways.” Having been used to overturn a 1986 Supreme Court ruling, Lawrence v. Texas might now become a precedent for one day overturning Roe. This, to the Journal, would be “the height of irony.” I don’t think the Journal truly believes that a Supreme Court determined to overturn Roe would let lack of a precedent get in its way.

“Instead of settling the issue of gay rights,” said the Journal, “yesterday’s decision may only have inflamed it.” Brown was pretty inflammatory too; it led to a lot of southern mayors and governors standing in schoolhouse doors to be counted, in much the way that Senate majority leader Bill Frist promptly put his good name behind the idea of a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage. It was nowhere close to being in the Supreme Court’s power to settle the issue of gay rights. Americans will disgrace themselves on the subject for a long time to come, but the state has lost the power to lock gays up for how they touch each other.

Bully Boys

The casualties kept coming, and the president was glad the war was over so they didn’t count. “If LBJ had declared victory in 1964,” he said, “maybe the people wouldn’t have noticed that there were 50,000 more deaths while the army spread the blessings of liberty.”

“Except the press would have kept one of those little boxes where the number changes every day,” the vice president grumbled. “The old media was so obnoxious.”

The president and vice president saw eye to eye on the Vietnam war. They agreed it was the old media’s fault that America had lost–the old media and the liberal element in Washington that refused to fight to win. The president and vice president also agreed that it was a good thing that they personally stayed out of that war.

“Clausewitz said if you don’t want a commander in chief who’s still fighting the last war,” said the vice president, “find the man who slept through it.”

“Well, there you are,” said the president.

“There we both are,” said the vice president.

“But you know what?” said the president. “I’m beginning to wonder myself if there ever were any weapons of mass destruction.”

“So’s the old media,” said the vice president. “The new media’s still on board.”

“What we need to do,” said the president, “is find another evil man and run his ass out too. Make it clear that this isn’t about oil, or empire, or WMDs. This isn’t even about 9/11. This is about a really nice country that doesn’t like evil men.”

“I’ve been hearing about some in Africa,” said the vice president.

The president thought long and hard. “What about Canada?” he said. “Cretin doesn’t like me, and I don’t like him. Let’s go in and break the grip of the sodomites.”

News Bites

8 Even if we’ve become accustomed to sketchy reports of one or two American soldiers at a time being killed by guerrillas in central Iraq, last week’s report of six British soldiers shot dead in a small town in the quiet south was shocking. But the next day’s Tribune carried a detailed story by Laurie Goering, who talked to many local Iraqis and explained how and why this slaughter happened. Her story was journalism beyond reasonable expectations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.