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Remember Estes Kefauver
June 5, 2013
by William P. Meyers

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There's a dirty little secret of the 1950's that neither the Democratic Party propagandists nor the Republican Party propagandists want you to remember. For both parties the 1950s were a shining era. A Republican, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was President for most of the decade, but the New Deal was still largely intact and the Democrats often controlled Congress. Both parties consider the 1950's a time of greatness, when the economy prospered, America ruled most of the world, and people were modest and hard-working.

Estes Kefauver was a Senator from Tennessee and he wanted to be President. He knew a little bit about vice, particularly the games of poker and flirting. Within the Democratic Party he was seen as too conservative by northern liberals and too liberal by southern conservatives.

In 1950 Senator Kefauver decided to have a committee investigate organized crime on a national scale. As far as the mainstream media was concerned, organized crime had been busted up after Prohibition. Sure, illegal gambling and prostitution still existed, and there were some junkies in most major cities who had to get their junk from somewhere, but crime just was not on the agenda.

Despite having a committee loaded with at least two Senators with mob connections and a marginally competent staff, Estes not only found organized criminal organizations in each of 14 cities he looked at, but in each city the political machine, and the police, were closely tied in with the mob.

Television was still fairly new in 1950s, but millions of sets existed and the Senate hearings were televised. It is estimated that 30 million Americans watched New York City crime boss Frank Costello testify, or rather dodge questions. Willie Moretti of New Jersey answered too many questions, and was gunned down in October 1951.

Kefauver exposed but he also protected. He was surprised at the wrath of top elected Democrats from Harry Truman on down. He carefully underplayed the political corruption angle. During the hearings he inexplicably deposited $25,000 in his bank (about $250,000 in today's money) and found another $10,500 to pay off a mortgage. One of his own chief campaign contributors was exposed as a numbers boss in Knoxville. When hearings in Chicago ignored Democratic Party leaders having become millionaires in public offices having only small salaries, it was rumored that they had a picture of him doing a Chicago prostitute.

All lines of inquiry seemed to lead in one direction: Las Vegas. In November 1950 the Kefauver Committee arrived in Los Vegas. The nation was newly at war in Korea and the Republicans had just picked up five seats in the U.S. Senate (one was Richard Nixon) and twenty-eight in the House of Representatives. Kefauver was blamed by Democratic Party leaders for the defeat. Then the hand-selected mob frontmen, casino owners and public officials alike, denied knowing anything about organized crime or even the amount of money skimmed out of the casinos' takes before accounting was done and taxes paid.

Kefauver drew no conclusions from the testimony in Las Vegas. He had been defeated.

Today only students of organized crime read the old Kefauver report. That generation of top mobsters is dead. The political machines are less corrupt in some places, more corrupt in others, and the widespread legalization of gambling has. It is no accident that Barack Obama has happily focused on radical Islam rather than on organized crime, since he is the packaged product of the Chicago political machine. He has continued to support the anti-marijuana laws despite overwhelming grassroots support for legalization because he is protecting the black market profits of his allies.

You can read the Committee report at: American MAFIA, Kefauver Committee Final Report.

While unpopular with elected Democrats, Estes Kefauver was popular with voters. In the 1952 New Hampshire Primary he defeated President Truman, who then dropped out of the race. Kefauver won 12 of 15 primaries, but back then delegates to national conventions were mainly chosen by party machines. The same mob-ridden machines that Kefauver exposed. Adlai Stevenson, another mob-friendly but liberal Illinois politician, got the nomination. In the end the Republican Dwight ("Ike") Eisenhower won the Presidency. In 1956 Kefauver stomped Stevenson in the primaries at first, but later Stevenson, awash in campaign donations, won Oregon, Florida and California. Stevenson was nominated, and Ike was re-elected.

Kefauver died in 1963. No major, nationwide, public investigation into the links between organized criminal activity and politics has taken place since 1950.

This essay is largely based on Chapters 6 and 7 of The Money and the Power by Sally Denton and Roger Morris. Also David Halberstam's The FiftiesThe Fifties.

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