Burdick, Mitchell on Hart, Rice
The book is Blue Thunder: How the Mafia Owned and Finally Murdered Cigarette Boat King Donald Aronow by Thomas Burdick and Charlene Mitchell (Simon and Schuster, 1990). It is a hidden treasure.
Don Aronow was the ruggedly handsome, larger than life, offshore powerboat racing champion who was also famous for designing the industry-leading Cigarette, Donzi, and Magnum speedboats, crafts that are favored not just by racing competitors but by drug smugglers and the customs agents who pursue them. On February 3, 1987, as he was leaving his place of business in Miami in his Mercedes, he was gunned down by the driver of a Lincoln Town Car, who pumped several bullets into his body with a .45 automatic at point-blank range.
Anyone reading this gripping, extraordinarily educational book must conclude that the better, more descriptive noun for what happened to Aronow is “assassination.” It was an assassination in the same sense that the violent deaths of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Forrestal, Frank Olson, and Vincent Foster were assassinations. Donald Aronow was an important person whose killing had a political dimension, and the actual truth about what happened is very different from what our corrupt authorities concluded.
“If you came away from reading ‘Blue Thunder’ with the idea that all of south Florida is controlled by the mob, it would be understandable,” begins The Washington Post in its disparaging, don’t-read-this-book review by Jerry Bledsoe, demonstrating in the process that the control, at least of the justice system and the press, reaches well beyond south Florida. As I followed Burdick and Mitchell’s unraveling of the Aronow mystery, from his meteoric success in the mob-infested construction industry in New Jersey, his precipitate “retirement” and relocation to south Florida after a brief Caribbean detour, his equally meteoric rise in the boat-building industry, his violent end, and then the obvious cover-up of the murder, I was unable to get the lines from my take on the well-known Edwin Arlington Robinson poem, “Richard Cory,” out of my head:
You know what bothers me most of all
Is those guys that never learn how to play ball.
I've known some real losers, but I think that the worst
Was that bum with the plant up on Fifty-First,
looking fellow, all polished and slim,
The jerk believed nothing could happen to him,
He thought all his money was enough to protect him,
His stupid self-confidence finally wrecked him.
What he didn't know was our guy was on top,
We had every pol and we had every cop.
The suckers don't know that we nailed him yet;
We had every hack at the News and Gazette.
We hired a good hit man, and the boss didn't know it,
But I even sprung for a slick-writing poet.
As soon as the boss seen how good that it went
He called it the very best dime that we spent.
Now youse have all heard my gospel-truth story.
Too bad what we done to that slick Richard Cory.
No, they didn’t stage a “suicide” for Aronow and the mobsters don’t “have” all of those people, but they have enough. Here, on page 298, Burdick and Mitchell explain how it works:
When local detectives…wander into…sensitive avenues, someone from the brass is on hand to “advise” them to focus their efforts on some other “more productive” aspects of the case. “They tell them not to waste their time, that it’s a dead end, some bullshit like that,” says [probation officer Rory] McMahon. “You know how that shit is, when the big boss makes a quote suggestion. It’s all very subtle.”
It’s even easier at a newspaper. The reporter’s story gets rewritten, or it doesn’t make it into the paper at all. The consequent personnel weeding-out process that takes place validates the poem narrator’s low opinion of the surviving inky-wretch set, of course.
The narrator’s bad English also might have been appropriate for Richard Cory’s day, but Burdick and Mitchell suggest that day is past:
The popular stereotype of organized crime is outdated…
The ill-fitting black suits have been cast off for Savile Row styles. The dingy neighborhood bars have lost out to four-star gourmet eateries. The Brooklyn accents have given way to Ivy League tones. Street smarts are being enhanced by law degrees and MBAs. This is today’s mob. At its disposal is a sophisticated network of lawyers, bankers, businessmen, and officials who help them manage global operations that are woven into the fabric of legitimate society…
Meyer Lansky had once said about the mob: “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel.” At the time, U.S. Steel was the largest corporation in the world. Since then, the steel company has gotten smaller. The mob is bigger and more powerful than ever…
The underground empire has become the invisible empire. And no amount of armed security at the gates of government is going to keep it out. (pp. 313-315)
Unlike our revisionist version of Richard Cory, Don Aronow certainly did learn “how to play ball.” His early mastery of the game accounted for much of his material success. But two things seemed to have confused the rules for him, leading to his murder. They were the death of his main patron and protector in the mob, Meyer Lansky, and his own close friendship with then vice president George H. W. Bush. You’ll have to read the book to see how these two factors, according to the authors’ theory, came into play.
Generally, the mob would rather not have to kill people, especially people who are not known mobsters and with whom they have developed a profitable relationship. They prefer their old stock in trade, extortion, or a sub-category of extortion, blackmail. When the target is a prominent politician, an even more light-handed tactic can be just as effective, public humiliation. That’s where a little vignette from Blue Thunder meets the title of this article.
Blue Thunder on the Monkey Business Caper
Chapter 20 begins this way:
A titillating piece of information had come my way while looking into the Aronow story. Although apparently unrelated to the murder, it reinforced the omnipresence of the mob and its infiltration into all aspects of society. When the feds busted Ben Kramer, they discovered originals of Gary Hart’s stump speeches in Ben’s Ft. Apache safe. Somehow a Lansky, Inc. drug kingpin had gotten possession of a presidential contender’s papers.
At the time that Hart was blown out of the presidential waters, he had been the Democratic front-runner. The rest of the Democratic contenders seemed to have little chance of knocking Hart off the winning path. On the Republican side was George Bush, the heir apparent to the Reagan era. Bush was considered a weak candidate; even Reagan had expressed doubts about his loyal veep’s presidential fortitude. It looked as if the Democrats might capture the White House for the first time in eight years.
Suddenly, “Snow White,” as Hart was dubbed by the press, was devastatingly and humiliatingly knocked out of contention. With Democrats’ strong front-runner gone, the party was divided among the “Seven Dwarfs,” the remaining Democratic candidates. The precarious unity was gone, and a fractious campaign ensued with no one able to amass the strength that Hart once commanded.
Despite Gail Sheehy’s famous “psycho-political” article in Vanity Fair about Hart, there may be more behind the story than simply the tale of a man whose rigid religious upbringing forced him to punish himself by self-destructing. A closer look at the Hart debacle reveals an interesting panorama played out behind the highly publicized story.
Lynn Armandt, the woman who brought Gary Hart down, had worked for a long time at Turnberry Isle before the infamous Monkey Business trip in May 1987. Don Soffer, the developer and manager of the resort, had made her the head of “Donny’s party girls”–which some cynics likened to high-priced call girls. He also provided her with free floor space to sell bikinis. (Turnberry’s shops are considered some of the most expensive retail space in Miami.) In all, an extremely lucrative position for a woman of her background.
She and Donna Rice, another of Donny’s girls, were very good friends. The two women lived in upscale, neighboring condominiums not far from Turnberry and Thunderboat Alley. As Donny’s girls, Armandt and Rice made money, “dated” wealthy and famous men, and had entrée to Miami’s high-flying lifestyle.
After the incident, Rice supposedly ended her association with Armandt, angered over the “betrayal.” Or so she told Barbara Walters in a 20/20 piece. But people at Turnberry and Rice’s Miami condominium saw the two women together often after the Hart affair. A maintenance man at Rice’s condo saw them sunbathing at the pool frequently both before and after the 20/20 piece. “They were laughing and joking and were the best of girlfriends,” he had said. “Nothing changed.”
As the scrutiny of the scandal continued unabated, Armandt moved to New York and then went underground. She was castigated as a money-hungry woman who sold out her friend and brought down a presidential contender for a handful of dollars. But if she had been so inclined, why not blow the cover on some of the other celebrities who cavorted at the resort over the years? The resort’s client roster included a long list of powerful and celebrated men. Some whose often compromising activities there would have been ideal fodder for the gossip rags.
A street-smart woman such as Armandt knew she would become a pariah among Turnberry’s clientele and her relationship with her boss and benefactor would be severed if she publicized the secret life of any patron. Armandt also knew that some of the Turnberry boys could play a rough game. If it ever slipped her mind, she only had to remember what happened to her drug-smuggling husband. The last trace of him was a bloody bullet-riddled car and a piece of paper containing the telephone number of Turnberry patron Ben Kramer.
Gary Hart had already been to Turnberry before the Monkey Business incident, despite his denials. When he returned in May 1987, a “setup” may have been arranged with Armandt being directed at every step of the way.
One fed who has investigated Turnberry (he alleges that the twenty-nine-story condominium is “mobbed-up from the twenty-ninth floor down”) agrees with the notion that the Hart affair was masterminded by OC (organized crime, ed.) interests. He points out that Armandt went to the Miami Herald with her story, where she had no prospect of making any money but the greatest chance of destroying Hart quickly. The key question is, who stands to benefit from destroying Gary Hart? “One thing to always remember is [the mob] they’re big business,” he reminds me, “As goes the economy, so goes big business. Meyer Lansky was a staunchly conservative Republican, you know.”
There could be a deeper motive behind the Hart fiasco than simple partisan preferences. Contemporary organized crime depends on a protective shield of middle-level governmental and law enforcement officials. These are the people who possess valuable information and make decisions that directly affect the mob—selecting which cases to investigate and which to ignore, which drug smugglers to go after, which wiseguy convicts to parole. It’s the mob’s real muscle and it comes from owning not the president but the appointed politicians and law enforcement management.
After eight years of productive, well-oiled relationships at all levels of the federal government, it’s unlikely the mob would look favorably on a completely new administration. With a Democratic win, these relationships would be lost as officials and appointees made way for a new administration. The protective shield would falter—temporarily—as OC bagmen had to start anew finding people willing to take envelopes stuffed with cash in return for favors.
Keeping the same party in power and simply changing the head ensures that the machinery continues to run smoothly. From organized crime’s perspective, the “right” people retain their jobs: those not-so-really-new faces who would be expected from the not-so-really-new President Bush.
It is widely acknowledged that the Republicans didn’t win the 1988 election so much as the Democrats lost it. Perhaps there was an unseen hand making some adjustments in the direction of the election by strengthening the Republican chances of winning.
The mob had influenced presidential campaigns in the past. It’s common knowledge that Lansky, along with the mob boss Sam Giancana, had tipped the scales in Jack Kennedy’s favor when he delivered the state of Illinois. And if the mob could influence an election, manipulation of a local murder would be a small endeavor. It was all just a matter of “taking care of business” for the world’s largest and most powerful “corporation.”
The authors, it is clear, are much better at explaining what really happened in the elimination of Gary Hart as a presidential contender, and how it was done, than in explaining why it was done. It was not a case of mob preference for one party over the other or of preference for the incumbents over the party that was out of power. It had much more to do with blocking the aspirations of one particular Democrat, Gary Hart, than those of the party as a whole. We can say this with the advantage of hindsight that they did not have. Former member of the national security council, Roger Morris, explained in his book, Partners in Power, the Clintons and Their America, published six years later, that Hart as a senator had been a particular thorn in the side of the mob and had shown a strong inclination toward exposing the close ties between organized crime and the government’s own intelligence community. Burdick and Mitchell did not know that after only one term, the Republican George H. W. Bush would be replaced as president by a relatively obscure Democratic Arkansas governor with his own mob connections through his influential uncle Raymond Clinton. Furthermore, this man, Bill Clinton, was already known to have womanizing habits that were much worse than anything Hart was accused of. They also did not know that Bill Clinton would appoint as his Attorney General the Dade County State Attorney, Janet Reno, who, to the authors’ dismay, would end up pinning the Aronow murder on a man who by that time was already serving a life sentence for other offenses.
Falling off the Journalistic Ladder
In Blue Thunder, Burdick and Mitchell tell us of one law enforcement official after another being taken off the Aronow case just when they are beginning to make some progress, with at least one being demoted and his effectiveness essentially ended. Their work on this case seems to have been a career killer for the authors, as well. The authors are described on the dust jacket of the book as follows: “Thomas Burdick and co-writer Charlene Mitchell jointly write a nationally syndicated column, The Winning Edge. Burdick has been published in The Washington Times, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Ottawa Citizen, and a variety of national magazines.”
We know that Burdick, at least, was relatively young when he wrote Blue Thunder because at one point he describes a man who was in his mid-fifties as being old enough to be his father. As a work of investigative journalism, Blue Thunder is nothing less than a tour de force. These are the kind of people that we desperately need in the journalism profession, we keep telling ourselves as we turn page after revealing page. So what else have they written? A Google search of their names turns up only Blue Thunder.
And what has happened to the vast organization of Meyer Lansky, now that that powerhouse is dead? Several times in the book, Miami lawyer, restaurateur, and philanthropist, Alvin Malnik, is described as Lansky’s heir apparent. Blue Thunder has a very detailed 11-page index. Curiously, Malnik’s name is not listed there. We might be inclined to dismiss this omission as an inadvertence, but we have seen this technique used very tellingly recently. In that instance, the corrupt pre-appointment actions of federal judges John Bates and Brett Kavanaugh had been described in the text, but both names were missing from the index.
February 11, 2009
See also Edna Buchanan's Embarrassment.