Not known as a comedian, Jeffrey Toobin was nonetheless consistently funny Thursday evening at the Miami Book Fair, where he came to talk about this latest book, American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst.
Effusively praising the book fair — “It’s not just a Miami institution, it’s a national institution!”— he mentioned the Presidential Medal of Freedom announced this week for book fair co-founder, Miami Dade College president Eduardo Padrón.
Looking to his right, where the other co-founder, bookstore owner Mitchell Kaplan stood looking on, Toobin quipped, “Maybe President Trump will give you a medal, Mitch.”
The laughter turned to groans of disappointment when Toobin, a former lawyer and expert legal commentator on CNN, announced that he was going to talk about the book, not the recent presidential election, but he promised to take political questions at the end.
And of course, that’s almost all he got, although a couple of people asked about the Hearst book, which, to be honest, sounded fascinating. The author of seven books, including The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, adapted last summer as the TV miniseries, The People vs. O.J Simpson: An American Crime Story, Toobin is not only a dogged reporter, but also a fine storyteller.
The highlights of his political remarks, all in response to questions from the audience: Ego, not political considerations, drove FBI Director James Comey to announce an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email several months after he had exonerated her, and only 11 days before the election.
“I don’t think he was trying to swing the election,” Toobin said. “Comey is an exquisite student of his own reputation. He thought if he didn’t do something, Republicans would accuse him of covering it up. Like everyone else, he thought Clinton was going to win.”
In the end, Toobin waved off the question. “Comey did enormous damage to the electoral process,” he said. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. But what to do about it? There is no remedy.”
Toobin predicted the Republican-led Congress will continue to investigate Hillary Clinton’s use of an unsecure email server while secretary of state. But he said President Barack Obama will not offer her a pardon, nor does he expect her to ask for one.
“You don’t have to be guilty of a crime to receive a pardon,” Toobin said. “But asking for one makes it look like you are guilty. Clinton believes she committed no crime.”
Toobin faulted the press for underplaying the Russian effort, by way of WikiLeaks, to influence the U.S. election. Russian hackers reportedly stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and other places, funneling them to the public by way of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
“My colleagues and I treated the Clinton emails only as raw material rather than as a product of a Russian plan to swing the election to Trump,” Toobin said. He suggested the emails prove no wrongdoing. “Big shock. John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, was trying to get Hillary Clinton elected.”
Although Toobin gave the election questions his full energy and attention, what he really wanted to talk about was Patty Hearst. American Heiress is his first book about a subject he did not report as it was taking place. He was a boy when Hearst was kidnapped in 1974. Why, he asked rhetorically, why revisit this old story now?
“The short answer is I got interested in the 1970s,” Toobin said. “My working assumption was that the ’60s was when there were riots and unrest and in the ‘70s things kind of settled down.”
In truth, Toobin said, the ’70s were much worse.
“In the early to mid-1970s, there were a thousand political bombings a year in the U.S.,” Toobin said. “Think what Fox would do with that if it happened today. There were two skyjackings a month. Incredible violence was prevalent, especially in the Bay area.”
The kidnapping of Patty Hearst, heiress to the greatest newspaper empire of the time, is emblematic of the craziness of the times, Toobin said.
“This is the only political kidnapping in American history,” Toobin said. “Then and now.”
Hearst, a 19-year-old college student, was kidnapped by a ragtag outfit of ex-cons and student radicals that styled itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. After being held in a closet for six weeks, Hearst joined her kidnappers, and for more than a year took part in bank robberies, bombings, and other mischief.
Toobin, a dapper man with a big personality, told the story with gusto and a surprising degree of detail, milking humor from it whenever possible. His account of three new recruits to the SLA from the Indiana University theater program got a big laugh.
Several SLA members were killed in a firefight with Los Angeles police in 1974, while Hearst and the remaining members were captured a year later. Defended by celebrity advocate F. Lee Bailey, Hearst was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison.
Although Toobin talked to more than 100 witnesses, he could not get Patty Hearst to agree to an interview. Letters, phone calls, contact through intermediaries — all came to naught.
Toobin has two ideas for why she refused to cooperate with him.
“She’s 62 years old, a mother, a grandmother,” he said. “She has led the life for which she was destined. The whole thing turned into the junior trip abroad from hell, then she became the queen of suburbia.”
More cynically, Toobin said, Hearst refused him because she can control the narrative with less knowledgeable reporters.
“I would ask her about the bank robberies, the bombs,” Toobin said. “She didn’t want to answer those questions.”