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George Knapp: Gin and juice

<p>George Knapp</p>

George Knapp

The Mob Museum is about to be overtaken by what might as well be called Oscar-palooza. A three-day promotional blitz is scheduled to coincide with the release of Being Oscar, the new, first-person narrative about former Mayor Oscar Goodman’s fascinating, twisty-turny life. It wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to hear criticism that maybe the museum, which was financed in part with public money, shouldn’t be used to sell books for the ex-politician who was a driving force in its very creation. It is probably a legitimate point to at least discuss because, at first glance, anyway, it looks like a quid pro quo.

However, like all museums, this one is in a constant struggle to attract paying customers, keep the public interested and keep its doors open. Whether you like Oscar or not, the guy knows how to draw a crowd and how to put on a show. My guess is that museum managers see Goodman’s new book as a way to generate a considerable news coverage about the museum itself, which could generate ticket sales for weeks or months to come. And, face it, our ex-mayor has morphed into a bigger name and a bigger attraction than perhaps any of his notorious clients, whose criminal exploits are chronicled inside the museum.

Some of my media colleagues, people whose opinions I value and respect, simply cannot stand the former mayor. The whole gin-and-showgirls, larger-than-life, semi-wiseguy routine grates on their nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard. I understand all of that.

But I happen to like Oscar, and I still get a kick out of the meticulously constructed character he puts on display whenever he is in the public eye. The fact is, I got to know him during some fairly contentious interviews and circumstances many years before he ever took the political plunge. In those days, he had to come up with new material almost every day in order to explain why one or more of his clients had just been arrested or indicted, and he was good at it.

Showmanship has always been an important part of his public persona. The thespian talents he forged during life-or-death courtroom dramas over the years served him well once he ran for public office. He learned, amazingly enough, that the public hungers for straight talk from politicians. When opponents tried to tar him by pointing out his lifetime of shady associations, Goodman embraced his past and then brilliantly co-opted future attacks by admitting that he drinks like a fish, gambles like a degenerate and that he has a great appreciation for the female form (though he is happily married and does not stray).

The voters roared their approval at such candor, and from that point on, Goodman could (almost) do no wrong. Even after three terms, he still enjoyed an 80 percent approval rating. As he admits in the new book, the chatter about his oversized ego is not an exaggeration. Carolyn, his future wife, refused to go out with him at first because she quickly surmised that Oscar was in love with himself, but she eventually came to know another side of him and was able to see beyond the bombast.

Once he was elected mayor, the gloves were off for Goodman. Whatever restraints of false modesty he once harbored were cast aside because he realized that unbridled egotism could be a powerful asset so long as everyone was allowed to laugh at the joke. The Oscar character that we have all come to know so well became even bigger and more outrageous as time went by, his popularity soaring in spite of pointed (and legitimate) criticisms leveled by some in the media. By the time he was into his second term, he already knew that the popularity of Oscar the Character allowed him to overpower his opposition through sheer force of will on such issues as a new City Hall, downtown redevelopment and the Mob Museum.

That ostentatious character is now a full-fledged, world-famous brand, with an Oscar-themed steakhouse, his sweet gig as roving ambassador for Las Vegas, the soon-to-be-bestseller status of his new book and, quite possibly, a future movie deal and/or reality TV show. Goodman is far from done, but he thinks the dramatic turnaround in the downtown area flows directly from the decisions he made during his 12 years in office, and the decisions his wife and successor continues to make.

The book is a fun read, as you might expect, and Oscar does not claim that it is even close to being an unbiased historical reckoning of his life and his years in office. It is his story, told in his words, and with his slant on things, which should not exactly come as a surprise to anyone.

One small item might escape the notice of the casual reader, but it’s pretty clearly a zinger meant for those who worry that the Goodman family might become a political dynasty, one to rival the Lambs or the Reids. I asked Oscar if he has plans for a Goodman family primary election to figure out which of his accomplished children might be in line to replace Carolyn after she leaves eventually leaves office. He smiled and pointed out the page on which the book is dedicated to his wife and “to the Dynasty.”

I couldn’t tell if he was having some fun with all of us or whether he is being serious. Sometimes it is tough to distinguish between Oscar the Character and Oscar the wily strategist.


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GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.