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Terror in Hollywood!

Murder, corruption and lies

Sep. 8, 2008
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   Today's neocons would love it: Terrorists disturbing the peace and security of the United States are hunted down, not at taxpayer expense, but by a private agency for personal gain. The free market rules!

  Well, sort of. It was attempted a century ago, when enterprise was not so much private as it was wild and woolly, and concern for such minor legal details as individual rights was even less than it has become in our day. Eventually, of course, the government had to step in to arrest the bad guys and put them on trial-and when it did, the attendant early-20th-century corruption sounds as modern as in a John Grisham novel.

  "Novel" is not an inappropriate word to use in connection with American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century (Crown), Howard Blum's fast-moving, skillfully constructed account of the hunt for the perpetrators of the bombing that killed 21 people and injured many more in the Los AngelesTimes building on Oct. 1, 1910. Journalist and author Blum (TheBrigade) makes the facts work in much the same way that the nascent motion pictures he describes worked for audiences of the period.

  The private investigation agency was that of William J. Burns, former Secret Service agent famed for his investigatory exploits. You can never have enough fame, which is why Burns acceded to the pleading of L.A.'s mayor to take the case, even though the owner of the Times, Harrison Gray Otis, despised Burns and had once supported men who wanted him assassinated.

  The Times accused trade unionists of planting the bombs. It was a time of bitter labor-capital feuding, especially in Los Angeles. Dozens of bombings across the country had also been blamed on unionists. The Times was virulently anti-labor, and Otis was the sparkplug of a national movement to bust unions.

  However, it wasn't that black and white. Otis, in a plot similar to that of the movie Chinatown, was quietly involved in an egregious land-and-water fraud that would bring fabulous riches to him and his fellow business leaders at the expense of Los Angeles taxpayers, small farmers and landowners. So there was an undercurrent of contention that Otis might have blown up his own building to divert attention away from his clandestine shenanigans and onto labor and its socialist supporters.

  Burns is primus inter pares of three men in AmericanLightning, the other two being lawyer Clarence Darrow and moviemaker D.W. Griffith. Burns was a real-life version of the dogged, perceptive detective of mystery-novel tradition. And like more than a few fictional detectives, he acted on his own self-serving concept of justice, which did not always align with the Bill of Rights or any state's code of laws.

  "Billy refused to be bound by a squeamish, impractical interpretation of the law," says Blum, who intimates, particularly in his "Note on Sources" at the end, a parallel with today's terrorist situation, especially with regard to the flouting of habeas corpus.

  The quest took Burns and his operatives around the country. Through persistence, solid investigation and more than a little chicanery, he finally nabbed brothers J.J. and James McNamara of the Structural Iron Workers union. They were extradited to California and charged in the bombings.

  Darrow, though weary of battling for causes and seeking lucrative cases, took on the McNamaras' defense. Privately, he was sure they were guilty (he never asked them) and would hang. Both sides knew the value of PR and spin; both engaged in shady, perhaps illegal, goings-on. Darrow allegedly tried to bribe jurors; he later was indicted for it, but was acquitted. Burns bugged and recorded (via Dictaphone) the defense's strategy sessions, and was particularly adept at concocting stories for the press without a scrap of truth or fact.

  Ultimately, there was a settlement. Otis desperately wanted the McNamaras found guilty and executed, but feared it would spur a backlash that would propel the locally popular socialists to victory in an upcoming mayoral race, a victory that might thwart public financing of his painfully constructed land-and-water scheme.

  All of which leaves Griffith dangling, a rather superfluous addition to the story. True, Blum's style is cinematic-chapters alternate between persons and places in a manner similar to movie techniques being devised by Griffith-and he shows Griffith's rapidly growing career as running along parallel tracks with the Burns/bombing narrative, but scarcely do they meet, save in an abstract, conceptual sense.


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