Jeffrey Toobin was in town Thursday. On his list of places to see was Southern Hills Country Club.
“I’m sort of a golf fanatic,” he said.
Ironically, Toobin — one of the nation’s most prominent and prolific chroniclers of the criminal justice system — was unaware that the exclusive club is known for more than its world-class golf course.
Businessman Roger Wheeler was gunned down there in 1981, allegedly on orders from gangster Whitey Bulger.
Maybe Toobin doesn’t know every detail of every crime committed by this country’s most notorious criminals, but give him a little time to dig, and he’ll come back with a hell of a story .
His list of best-selling books is long and includes “The Run of His Life: O.J. Simpson v. The People,” and “The Nine.”
Now comes “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst,” which he was in town to promote at a Booksmart Tulsa event.
Toobin was almost 14 years old when, on Feb. 4, 1974, three members of the Symbionese Liberation Army forced their way into Patty Hearst’s apartment in Berkeley, Calif., and kidnapped her.
Over the next 18 months, the country watched transfixed as the heir to a newspaper fortune became Tania the revolutionary, a loyal comrade-in-arms to a rag-tag bunch of delusional thugs.
“They (the S.L.A.) envisioned themselves as American counterparts to the revolutionary movements around the world. … They thought they could spur a revolution in the United States,” Toobin said. “It was complete madness. The couldn’t even generate support in the counterculture.
“Even the other terrorists like the Weather Underground thought they were insane.”
Toobin’s convinced that the 1970s was a more turbulent time in the country then the free-love decade of the 1960s. At the time of the Hearst kidnapping, Watergate and Vietnam were fresh in people’s minds and political bombings were commonplace.
So Hearst, granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, made for a good capture for self-proclaimed revolutionaries.
“He was such a larger-than-life figure. He owned the grandest private residence in the United States, San Simeon. He was the basis for perhaps the greatest American movie, ‘Citizen Kane,’” Toobin said. “And the fact that a Hearst was kidnapped was a perfect metaphor for how much the country was going off the rails in 1974.”
Patty Hearst was eventually apprehended in September 1975, but not before participating in multiple bank robberies — including one in which a bystander was killed — bombings of police stations and other crimes. She was tried only for the robbery of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, in which she was famously caught on security video toting a machine gun.
Attorney F. Lee Bailey could not keep his famous client out of jail. Hearst was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. But the sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter after Hearst had served just 22 months. On his last day in office, President Bill Clinton pardoned her.
Toobin bristles at the heiress’ good fortune.
“This is evidence to me that this woman, who is the only woman — the only person — in American history to receive a commutation from one president and a pardon from another, benefited tremendously from her wealth and privilege,” he said.
The central question of that time — and one that has lingered since — was whether Hearst was a willing accomplice of the S.L.A. or a brainwashed victim.
Toobin believes her actions speak for themselves. In May 1974, for example, she drove to a mall with two S.L.A. members and waited alone in a van while they went into a sporting goods store. She could have driven off, Toobin says. She could have walked away, or gone home.
Instead, she splattered the front of the store with machine gun fire as one of the S.L.A. members tried to escape from a security guard who had tackled him outside the store after catching him shoplifting.
“That to me is evidence of a voluntary participant in terrorist or revolutionary activities,” Toobin said. “Not an unwilling participant.”
Indeed, Toobin said, nothing surprised him more about Hearst than the fact that she was in the middle of the mayhem throughout her “captivity.”
“This was not just an isolated crime — this was a crime wave,” he said.
Toobin, 46, grew up in New York City thinking he wouldn’t be a journalist. After all, that was his parents’ business. Both worked in television news. So he studied history and literature at Harvard and stuck around to get a law degree as well.
He practiced law for about six years, three as an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn and three years as an associate counsel in the Office of Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh.
Toobin doesn’t claim he greatest prosecutor ever, but he loved the job, especially standing before a jury and making his case.
“I really did enjoy the performance aspect of it,” he said.
But eventually Toobin, who had been writing freelance articles since law school, went from practicing law full time to reporting on it full time. The move was inevitably, it seems.
“I feel like at some point in my late 20s my genetic destiny kicked in and I went back to journalism,” he said.
Toobin has done more than write books. He has been a fixture on television for decades. He is currently a legal analyst for CNN. Then there are his many articles for the New Yorker, for whom he went to work in 1993.
But nothing is more important to him than his books. The don’t come effortlessly, though his writing can make it seem that way. How does he do it? By doing it, that’s how.
“I have a very specific writing process when I’m writing books, and it’s kind of simple minded but it works for me,” Toobin said. “When I am writing a book — not magazine articles — when I am writing a book, I write five pages a day, without fail, 1,250 words.
“I find that the single easiest thing to do in the world is not to write. That if you give yourself the opportunity to procrastinate, not to write, you’ll take it. So by establishing this quota system, five pages a day, 25 pages a week, 100 pages a month, it allows me to produce a book in, you know, less than a year.”
Toobin describes himself as an optimist, even when it comes to the country’s criminal justice system. He points to the fact that domestic violence is taken much more seriously in this country than it ever has been.
“There were outright prohibitions on whether you can prosecute a husband for raping his wife,” he said. “Laws like that have disappeared.”
Yet he’s under no illusions that every person is treated the same under the law.
“It is still a lot better to be rich than poor, and it’s better to be white than black,” Toobin said. “But I do think society is aware of these distinctions and there have been some halting steps in a direction of a little greater equality.
“But certainly, most people don’t get a dream team, do they?”