A Southern Boss Tweed

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The Commissioner – A True Story of Deceit, Dishonor, and Death, by Bill Keith

Sometimes I read a book, not to assess its literary qualities, but simply because it fits into my personal history. This is one of those. But first, something about the author. Bill Keith is a journalist who has really gotten around. He worked as a war correspondent in Vietnam, has free-lanced in Tokyo, Europe, and the Philippines. And finally, he spent many years in my hometown, Shreveport, LA, as an investigative reporter.

What investigation did he become embroiled in here to justify this book? The Public Safety Commissioner of the city back in the 70s was a well thought of man, George D’Artois. But George has an expensive gambling problem, and he begins embezzling money from the city coffers. Finally a reporter, Jim Leslie, uncovers George’s illegalities. Leslie is subsequently killed in a mobster-style hit in New Orleans, and rumor has it that George ordered the hit.
George is, in Keith’s story, the local kingpin. He controls the mayor’s office, the city council, and almost all the shady businesses in Shreveport. Shreveport, you see, has always been a semi-domesticated city – peopled by thugs, gamblers, and drug dealers, as well as bluenosed religious types that wouldn’t flinch in eye-for-an-eye situations. Too, Shreveport was and still is a city known for its racism, and George was the one appointed to keep the black population in constant fear and dread.
The new Chief of Police, then, unmindful of most of Shreveport’s social ills, draws the line at tolerating political corruption. He determines that his department is so corrupt he can only turn to the local newspapers to help expose D’Artois as Leslie’s murderer. As George’s gambling and shakedowns become unearthed, those doing the uncovering are threatened with bombings, murder, and kidnappings.
Finally with the help of the FBI and Baton Rouge police, enough evidence is brought to bear against George for an arrest. As if the continual exposés and George’s consequent threats don’t keep the populace on edge, George holes up in his attic with a .357, his family downstairs, and tells the cops to “come and get me.” They do, George is arraigned, and the judge inexplicably throws the case out. But months of stress as his habits are exposed sickens George, and he dies in a Texas hospital.

Knowing the outcome doesn’t spoil reading Keith’s work here in the least; after all, it was splashed all over the local papers for months, and one of those newspapers is nominated for a Pulitzer. The book is written in good, journeyman journalistic language, hardly like a taut novel, though, and the personal reasons behind D’Artois’ mental and emotional decay are left by the wayside. Still, it’s an easy read, and George’s antics, which remind greatly of New York’s Boss Tweed, are the stuff of high entertainment, even as they evolve into a modern morality play.
My rating: 16 of 20 stars

Visit my website here. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

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