It was late in the morning, and I left him standing with William F. Buckley Jr. on the floor of a Detroit television studio. What happened after that, I can’t say.
We now know for certain, however, that the former Teamsters boss who disappeared in 1975, is not buried in the backyard of the suburban Detroit home that has been the object of so much attention. Hoffa’s whereabouts have become an American obsession, a kind of continuing urban legend fueled every few years by yet another tip alerting authorities to where he is supposed to be buried.
But that morning Hoffa was still very much alive, and there I was with him and Buckley, then America’s most famous conservative writer and intellectual, as well as Frank Mankiewicz, the former press aide to Robert Kennedy, who was running George McGovern’s campaign for the U.S. presidency against Richard Nixon.
How I ended up with this unlikely trio, well, that’s a story.
In late September of 1972,William Buckley came to Detroit for several episodes of his popular Firing Line talk show aired weekly on Public Television. When I arrived at WTVS, I expected the studio to be full of reporters. To my surprise, it was just Buckley and me. We talked in his dressing room for an hour or so.
He was friendly and relaxed and seemingly in no hurry to end the interview. Two things still stand out from that long ago conversation. The first thing was that Buckley’s shirt collar was frayed. I remember being fascinated by that. Here was a wealthy man, the patrician who attended Yale and moved easily in the higher reaches of American life, and he was about to go on television wearing an old shirt with a frayed collar.
The other thing I remember is the comment he made when I asked him about the most difficult part of his job. “Coming up with an opinion on everything,” he promptly replied. “Some things I don’t care about one way or another, but people still want to know what I think. Then I have to find something to say, when I don’t really have anything at all to say.”
After we finished talking, he invited me into the studio where he was about to tape the day’s shows. When we entered, there was Jimmy Hoffa. I had no idea he was one of the guests, and I remember being shocked at seeing him–he was, after all, one of the most notorious figures in American life, only recently released from a federal prison.
Buckley introduced me and we shook hands. If Hoffa realized I was a reporter, he didn’t seem concerned about it.
Here was the irony: as U.S. Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy had hounded Hoffa for years while he consolidated his power and made the International Brotherhood of Teamsters into the largest and most formidable (and some would say crooked) union in the United States. It was Kennedy who put Hoffa in jail, sentenced to eight years for fraud and jury tampering.
As Hoffa was introduced to Mankiewicz that morning, he had been out of prison only a few months, controversially pardoned by President Richard Nixon after serving four years. Now here was Bobby Kennedy’s worst enemy shaking hands with one of his best friends–not to mention the guy trying to defeat Hoffa’s pal Nixon–watched over by a gimlet-eyed Buckley and a young, slightly awe-struck reporter.
Hoffa was big and imposing in a black suit and a white shirt. One look at him and you could understand how a former grocery store clerk could muscle his way to the top of the American labor movement. What particularly impressed me was the size of his hands.They were like ham hocks. You would not want to get hit by one of those hands.
But nobody was hitting anyone that day. What amazed me was how congenial we all were. By now, technical problems had delayed taping, so there we were, the four of us in a semi-circle chatting about this and that, just like old pals.
Hoffa was on Firing Line to discuss, of all things, prison reform. He talked about what had to be done to improve the nation’s prisons while the three of us listened attentively. He was not at all intimidating. If anything, he came across as your blue-collar uncle who had stopped by on his way to a funeral.
All the same, I couldn’t take my eyes off those huge hands. I remember thinking that the day before yesterday I had been trying to explain why I didn’t finish my math homework. Now, here I was talking to Jimmy Hoffa.
Finally, the technical problems were solved and the taping of Firing Line was about to begin (Mankiewicz and Hoffa were appearing in separate segments). I thanked Buckley for his time and he gave me that famous chipmunk grin and went off toward the set. I turned, and there was Hoffa. He took my hand in his ham hock and said, “Nice meeting you, kid.”
That was the last I ever saw of him. A couple of years later he vanished into legend.
But he was okay when I left him.