AN AMERICAN VIEW

Contrasts in hero worship

While South Africans celebrated Nelson Mandela’s release, some New Yorkers cheered the acquittal of a strutting Mafia thug

FRED BRUNING March 5 1990
AN AMERICAN VIEW

Contrasts in hero worship

While South Africans celebrated Nelson Mandela’s release, some New Yorkers cheered the acquittal of a strutting Mafia thug

FRED BRUNING March 5 1990

Contrasts in hero worship

AN AMERICAN VIEW

FRED BRUNING

While South Africans celebrated Nelson Mandela’s release, some New Yorkers cheered the acquittal of a strutting Mafia thug

At about the time blacks in South Africa were celebrating Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, dozens of bystanders outside a Manhattan courtroom cheered John Gotti, who federal investigators say is boss of the largest Mafia family in the United States. Mandela, a prisoner of conscience for 27 years, was greeted as a hero upon returning to Soweto. Gotti, charged with hiring goons to kneecap a troublesome union leader, also came home in style after winning acquittal. Yellow balloons bobbed in the breeze. Neighbors in the borough of Queens spoke reverentially of their favorite son. Near one of Gotti’s haunts, a banner proclaimed, “Congratulations, John.”

Within days of leaving jail, Mandela drew 100,000 to a rally at which he spoke of freedom and equality. Gotti no doubt could have filled Yankee Stadium—such is his popularity—although it is difficult to imagine the man addressing the multitudes. Adept at one-liners, Gotti is known to falter at the prospect of stringing together sufficient thoughts for a paragraph. He also is renowned for a brand of enunciation that mimics a stopped sink, although many feel this is a defensive measure intended to spoil the quality of surreptitious government recordings. An individual of Gotti’s stature must ever be on the alert.

It can be hoped that most Americans would view a twice-jailed gangster whose FBI file includes truck hijackings, beatings, attempted burglary and a fatal shooting as a less than appropriate role model, but, in some ways, we are not so fortunate as the oppressed citizens of South Africa. Having endured the rigors of an exquisitely unjust society, blacks under Pretoria’s rule have acquired wisdom that may elude us here in the sweet land of liberty.

We have the peculiar luxury of choosing our heroes badly and elevating the least worthy beyond their fondest dreams. To a prosecutor in New York, John Gotti may be “a barely articu-

late lowlife, a thug by even Mafia standards.” To those easily dazzled, however, Gotti is irresistible—a strutting and disdainful dandy in slick suits who waves to admirers from behind the windows of a burgundy Cadillac, who sneers at the law and those who enforce it, a movieland character as apt to spend his hours in local hangouts as in the city’s finest restaurants, a smoothie who three times in four years has faced criminal charges and all three times beaten the rap, a consummate practitioner of streetsmanship who proves with his swagger and style that only suckers settle for the legal limit.

Gotti stirs our longing for the easy buck and the easy life, for a world in which there is no need to work five days a week, or six, or seven, a world of high times and expensive threads and profound respect, earned or otherwise. He tells us there is a way around the rigors of book learning and the job market, a way to succeed, after all, without really trying. Look at what he has achieved by doing business as he sees fit— how people shout his name and nod cautiously and move out of his way. As crowds murmur and limos speed off, it is as though John Gotti were the President, or a great musician, or a winner of a peace prize, as though

he were a person of quality and substance.

The lesson was not lost on the contingent of teenage boys who daily trooped to the courthouse during Gotti’s recent assault and conspiracy trial, the local “wannabes,” as they are known, who swept their hair back godfather-style and studied intently the way the defendant walked and scowled and flashed his diamond pinky ring. As mobster Albert Anastasia, a founder of “Murder Inc.,” is said to have been Gotti’s boyhood idol, Gotti, 49, now thrills a new generation of neighborhood toughs. To them, his story must seem like that of Mozart to the budding pianist or of Michael Jordan to the kid who stands for hours in the school yard, sinking 15-foot jump shots—a compelling tale apt to make the impressionable go forth and do likewise.

A high-school dropout at 16, John Joseph Gotti soon became known to police as a young man on the make. Officials say Gotti honed his craft for years by committing a slew of petty crimes ranging from brawling to bookmaking. He went to jail first in 1969 and again in the mid-1970s—another plus for his portfolio. In one especially astonishing episode, a neighbor who accidentally—and, police say, unavoidably—struck and killed Gotti’s 12-year-old son with his automobile received anonymous threats, was beaten with a baseball bat by Gotti’s wife, Victoria, and a few months after the boy’s death, was abducted in the parking lot of a suburban diner. The neighbor disappeared, and police presume him dead.

Finally, in 1985, Paul Castellano, overlord of the Gambino crime organization, was shot to death in front of a Manhattan steak house, and one week later investigators confirmed that Gotti had stepped into the vacancy. Now a genuine don, Gotti forsook his loud attire, his unshaven look, his polyester suits. He went to the barber every day. He favored white shirts and silk ties and duds of fine linen. Without doubt, the fellow who lists his occupation as a plumbing salesman had arrived.

What a story! The breathtaking seediness of it all, the danger, the passion, the in-your-face audacity of the man, John Gotti. You don’t have to be a juvenile delinquent to appreciate the appeal. We feast on movies like The Godfather and Scarf ace and a dozen others far less artistic. We may cringe at news of the latest mob execution, and lament the power and influence of organized crime, and repudiate the values of the underworld, but there is a certain strange magic that overtakes us, too—the allure of the outsider, the renegade, the brazen nonconformist.

Given the worrisome shortage of heroes these days, Americans may feel they have no choice but to entertain applications from just about anyone—killers, thugs and hijackers included. Elsewhere, however, a certain degree of excellence has been preserved. After leaving jail, Nelson Mandela spoke to supporters and illustrated why he is held so dearly. “I stand before you not as a prophet but a humble servant of you the people,” Mandela said. “I place ... my life in your hands.” John Gotti, meanwhile, departed criminal court with barely a word. In his line of work, a guy offers to put his life up for grabs, another guy may get ideas.

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.