Staff writer for The New Yorker, senior legal correspondent for CNN and best-selling author of six books, Jeffrey Toobin provides a consistently muscular perspective. Like his book The Run of His Life, upon which the terrific FX series The People Versus O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story is based, his new title, American Heiress is a crazy gripping read. Thoroughly researched and engagingly written, it has a lot to say about bizarre aspects of American life and privilege, sex and death.
In February 1974, Patty Hearst was kidnapped from her Berkeley home by a homegrown terrorist group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). The taking of the 19-year-old granddaughter of media baron William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for Citizen Kane, was for more than a year among the biggest stories in America.
Toobin’s book shows how Patty Hearst came to sympathise, then voluntarily participate in this tiny group’s despicable acts. She participated in three bank robberies; in one of these a woman was killed. She also joined in a plot to set off bombs which were calculated to terrorize and kill. Outside Mel’s Sporting Goods in Los Angeles, Hearst unleashed a sub-machine gun, firing 30 rounds across a busy street. No one was hurt, but a store clerk was saved only by the bullet hitting a pen in his shirt pocket.
Captured in September 1975, Hearst was represented at trial by the unorthodox F. Lee Bailey, and convicted and imprisoned for bank robbery. Later, Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence and Bill Clinton pardoned her. The backlash against groups like the SLA arguably contributed to the rise of Reagan-Bushism.
Playboy.com asked Toobin about parallels between O.J. and Hearst, whether Hearst staged her own kidnapping and how America of the mid ‘70s compares to the present. Along the way, he sounds off on everything from Trump to gun control to Bill Cosby.
Why did you write this book?
I came to this story through a similarly peculiar route as I did for O.J. I wrote a story for The New Yorker about a gang that had taken over a jail in Baltimore, called the Black Guerilla Family. It had been founded by George Jackson at Soledad Prison in the 1970s. The Californian prisons in the 1970s were enormously political places. They attracted a lot of interest. As it turns out the SLA came out of that milieu as well. That was my route into the story. As I got into reporting the book what interested me the most was just how insane the United States was in the 1970s. I always thought the '60s were the time of rebellion in the United States. In fact, the '70s were a much more dark and dangerous time, and that was a real revelation to me.
Patty Hearst is not an unknown subject, with Robert Stone’s documentary, Paul Schrader’s film and Hearst’s own biography, Every Secret Thing. What’s fresh with your take is it shows persuasively it was her choice to stay and participate in serious violent crimes. The shoot-out at Mel’s Sporting Goods is a particularly telling moment.
I find the Mel’s Sporting Goods incident extraordinary. Nothing substantial has been written about Patty Hearst in almost 30 years. That’s part of what attracted me to it. Getting into the details really did remind me of how crazy it was. And how much she genuinely was a member of the SLA.
Patty Hearst’s pardon saw narrative and emotions favored over evidence. Despite the weight of evidence, people clung to their beliefs. Do you see this as reminiscent of O.J.?
I think there are parallels with O.J. Both are stories about how facts outside the evidence of the case end up being the most important part about it. The most important part of the O.J. case was the racial history of Los Angeles. The most important part of the Hearst case was the privilege of her wealth. Neither of them actually had anything to do with the actual evidence of the case.
In American Heiress you quote Robert S. Mueller III’s scathing objection to Clinton’s pardon, allowing Hearst to rewrite history. You talk about insipid Hearst interviews with “friendly and for the most part under-informed journalists.”
She’s given a lot of interviews to people who aren’t closely informed on the facts of the case. I think that’s one reason she didn’t want to talk to me. She knew I’d be very steeped in the facts.
Why are you so sure Patty Hearst didn’t stage her own kidnapping? Hearst told Lou Scott that she did stage it. Nancy Ling, her weed dealer, had introduced her to the SLA’s leader Donald DeFreeze. Hearst’s motive, the theory goes, was getting out of her engagement to her sexist fiancé Stephen Weed.
She had no experience in that world. I spoke at great length to [former SLA leader] Bill Harris, who talked about how the plan to kidnap her came about. He said there was just no way that she was a participant. He was also the one who dragged her out of the house. I don’t buy that hypothesis. I recognise that it’s a possibility. But it’s not one that I believe.
Her Playboy Interview was interesting.
That’s the best interview. It was the Playboy Interview at its best. Many, many hours. Many thousands of words. It’s the only time she’s ever answered detailed questions about what really happened to her. No one else than Playboy would invest in that kind of journalism.
After your book, the FX series, the ESPN doc, and the rest, is there anything else to say about O.J.?
There’s always more to say. These are big, epic stories that implicate a lot of big issues in American life. People are going to be writing about them for decades. I am under no illusions that I have written the last word on O.J. or Patty Hearst or anything else. Any story that is worth devoting a whole book to is worth re-examining. Stories always look different with the passage of time. People are still writing biographies of Lincoln. His life hasn’t changed. Our perspectives change.
Some argue O.J. essentially confessed with If I Did It; a bit of internet rumor has it that he may formally confess.
I don’t know what the hell you would call that book. It was mostly just a way for O.J. to make money. I wouldn’t take it seriously as a factual account of what happened. I have no idea what his state of mind is at this point. We’ll see.
Are you still trying to get an interview with him?
By all means, I’ll try once in a while. He may get out. That may change his perspective.
You suggest in American Heiress that America 2016 isn’t crazy like this SLA period, or even 1968, but isn’t Trump scarier than any mainstream politician back then?
That’s a whole other subject. I think Trump is certainly capitalising on a sense of disorder in the country. What struck me was that the country was so much more disordered in the '70s than it is today.
Do you see Trump as a threat to Americans’ basic constitutional rights?
I don’t think Trump’s going to be the President of anything, so I don’t think he’s going to be a threat to anything. There is no question that he has authoritarian tendencies. He very explicitly threatens freedom of religion. The notion that Muslims couldn’t be admitted to the United States is complete anathema to any principles the country has stood for. But again, I’m not prepared to think he’s actually going to win.
You wrote an acclaimed book about Bill Clinton’s impeachment, A Vast Conspiracy. Do you think the hate and misogyny directed at Hillary—notably at the Republic Convention in Cleveland—will settle down if she’s elected President?
Not at all. The calls to lock her up have already begun, and they will continue for four or eight years, throughout her tenure. Anti-Clintonism is worse now than it was when Bill was in the White House. The difference is then there was some cooperation from Republicans on the policy issues.
Gun control is another subject you take on, and I agree with you it’s a political problem, rather than a legal problem. Will anything change significantly?
No, not at all. We have a political system that requires super majorities to get anything done. There is not super majority support for gun control. Especially when you have rural areas overrepresented in Congress and the Senate. I think there’ll be some gun control at the state level. But the problem is guns are portable over state lines. So that’s never going to make much of a difference.
The SLA had a wild approach to polyamory. Do you think we’re going to see any legal change along those lines over the next decade or two?
I think some of the arguments for same-sex marriage carry over for polygamy. I think the issue of children will make that idea a nonstarter for the foreseeable future. Until there is serious research on the effect of polygamy for children you will never see any serious momentum for it. Also, as far as I’m aware, there isn’t a big political constituency for it. I think one of the really game-changing arguments for same-sex marriage was children raised with same-sex parents did as well as or better than kids raised in traditional households.
Unlike same-sex marriage, there aren’t basic human and civil rights at issue with polygamy?
Right. People can live however they want. But marriage is distinctly the relationship that society chooses to recognise. Allowing people to get married is different from allowing people to live together. People are very free to live in whatever arrangements they want. But marriage as a legal concept is something entirely different.
Roger Ailes has been kicked out of his job running Fox News for sexual harassment. Do you think we’re at a cultural tipping point where sexual harassment is unacceptable?
I think we’ve been moving in that direction for a long time, going back to the Clarence Thomas hearings in the early '90s. Awareness of sexual harassment has been growing. I think it’s become unacceptable in a way that it wasn’t.
Finally, do you think Bill Cosby’s going to wind up in the Big House this year?
Yes I do. It all depends on one legal ruling. Whether the judge admits evidence of other bad conduct. If the judge does, I think it’s all over for him.
Alexander Bisley is a sports and cultural writer contributing to many, varied publications, including The Guardian and Slate. Follow him here.