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Goodman’s ‘Being Oscar’ hits high points, steps around low ones

Sensational. That’s the right word to describe “Being Oscar,” Oscar Goodman’s memoir of his high-flying, gin-imbibing life as a mob lawyer and three-term mayor of the city he was destined to represent.

Sensational can be a good thing, of course. “Being Oscar” is a fun read and sensational from first page to last. But, as one of Goodman’s Runyonesque clients might have said, that’s a lot of sensational.

As a mouthpiece, Goodman was in constant demand. Although these days he’s best-known as the lawyer who fought to keep Chicago Outfit enforcer Tony Spilotro out of prison, Goodman was on call from Reno to Philadelphia, San Diego to Boston, wherever the notorious needed fierce representation and could afford his fee.

As “the Happiest Mayor in the Universe,” Goodman was mouthier still. Endlessly quotable even when he was putting his foot in his face, Goodman began his local political career as an upset special and became the lock of the decade. He was so popular that rumors of him considering running for higher office made some of the campaign fixers who choreograph Nevada politics cringe.

Although the book was written with veteran author and Philadelphia journalist George Anastasia, Goodman’s voice rings true throughout. It’s brassy and boastful, and at rare times self-deprecating. (Which, I realize, sounds extremely hard to believe.)

Goodman wears his friends and enemies on his sleeve. He doesn’t admit having an ego: He boasts of its gargantuan girth. He kneecaps casino mogul Steve Wynn for slighting downtown. He gives the rubber hose treatment to President Barack Obama for slighting Las Vegas. He extols the virtues of Las Vegas liquor king Larry Ruvo and celebrates his marriage to current Mayor Carolyn Goodman. He talks of a Las Vegas mayoral dynasty the way rabid Miami Heat fans talk about repeating as NBA champs.

He’s loud and proud. And did I mention loud?

In short, Goodman’s memoir is sensational. But in hitting all the high points and tailoring tales of his double-breasted career toward a national audience that might not want a lot of detail, I think he has sold short some of the human drama and danger he surrounded himself with while representing the mob. When an organized crime lawyer’s clients are getting blown up (Frank Rosenthal), murdered (Spilotro), or wounded (Joey Cusumano), it qualifies as real pressure.

You probably knew I would say this, but I prefer my book on Goodman’s tumultuous life, “Of Rats and Men.” But, then, maybe that’s my ego talking.

“Being Oscar” lacks the sense of gravity of the era in which Goodman plied his profession. Goodman uses his, ahem, relationship with the federal government for laughs and lessons in the Constitution, but he fails to capture the depth of hatred members of the DOJ’s Organized Crime Task Force had for him. I can say with some certainty that prosecutors, FBI agents and Metro’s fearless street cops despised Goodman more than members of Spilotro’s malignant gang. Goodman frustrated them every chance he got and rubbed salt in every wound.

Whether that very public approach was always what was best for his clients is a point of contention — impeached federal judge Harry Claiborne, for instance, thought he was ill-served by Goodman’s high profile.

“Being Oscar” is indeed sensational. At times it reads as much like a script from an upcoming HBO comedy special as the remembrances of a man who represented some of the most notorious characters in American criminal history. But I suppose that’s just Oscar being Oscar.

I’ll bet it’s coming soon to a theater near you.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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