Even allowing that the cliches are correct--politics does make strange bedfellows--there was something breathtaking about the forum chosen by the president of the United States to deliver a major address, with international ramifications, on freedom, justice, democracy and the rights of the people.
"Our democracy encompasses many freedoms--of speech, of religion, of assembly and of so many other liberties that we often take for granted," the president told delegates to the International Longshoremen's Association meeting last week in Hollywood, Fla.
"These are rights that should be shared by all mankind. This union has always patriotically stood up for those freedoms. That's why I want to talk to you today about freedom not in the United States but in a part of the world very close and very important to us--Central America."
He went out of his way to praise the ILA, which had endorsed him in 1980, and particularly its president, Thomas W. (Teddy) Gleason Sr. He spoke of how the Sandinista regime of Nicaragua had promised freedom but instead replaced the previous dictatorship with its own, and said:
"What kind of freedom have the Sandinistas established? Just ask the 1,300 stevedores at the Nicaraguan port of Corinto. Last month, their union assembly was packed with Sandinistas and six union leaders were arrested. Their presumed crime was trying to develop ties with independent trade unions, including some affiliated with the AFL-CIO. I can tell you one thing. If all the longshoremen in Cor- into are like Teddy Gleason, the Sandinistas have a real fight on their hands."
According to The Post's Lou Cannon, who was there, Reagan also praised Gleason as a man who "sticks by his union" and who has shown "the kind of integrity and loyalty that's hard to come by today."
Now, normal excesses of political rhetoric notwithstanding, this was an extraordinary and dismaying performance for an American president. He could not possibly have chosen a more inappropriate audience to discuss such topics as the rights of people (including union members), oppression and assaults on human dignity. No labor union in American history, including the Teamsters, has compiled such a record of corruption, exploitation and intimidation of its members as has the ILA.
Thirty years ago the ILA was expelled from the American Federation of Labor after sworn testimony before the New York State Crime Commission documented massive corruption and a reign of terror on the New York waterfront, including many acts of murder. That investigation led to the expulsion of the ILA from the AFL and the conviction of key union officials, including its then-president, Joseph P. Ryan.
Among those who figured in that investigation was the same Teddy Gleason, now 82, who last week beamed, sang a song to the president and presented him a briefcase in appreciation after his ILA speech.
Testimony of Gleason, that great labor leader, makes interesting reading now. After receiving quick affirmative answers to the first three questions--was he the business agent of ILA Local 1346, was he the financial secretary of ILA Local 1730, was he the acting president of ILA Local 783--Gleason's interrogators had problems. To quote the official transcript of that hearing 30 years ago:
Q. Do you receive any salary from any of Haynes Johnson RIGHTS --those locals for any of those positions?
A. (Witness consulted with his attorney.) I refuse to answer at the present time, because I'm under subpoena on a federal income tax investigation.
As the hearing progressed, Gleason refused to answer a series of other questions "on the grounds it may tend to degrade or intimidate me." He refused to answer whether he received any expense allowances from those locals. He couldn't remember if a "workers' committee" of an ILA local he had organized was composed of notorious waterfront criminals. One of them, John M. (Cockeye) Dunn, a professional murderer, later was executed in Sing Sing for the slaying of a dock foreman.
Q. Did you know "Cockeye" Dunn?
A. (Witness consulted with his attorney.) I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate or degrade me.
Q. You knew he was electrocuted for the murder of Andy Hintz, didn't you?
A. I refuse to answer on the same grounds.
He refused to answer questions about some of his outside business interests, including a hotel frequented by big-name criminals that had just burned down at Greenwood Lake, N.J., but did acknowledge the accuracy of officially sanctioned wiretap conversations about prospective deals involving import of bananas and export of sulfur from Ecuador, shipping and selling armored airplanes to the Dominican Republic and trying to arrange an export license for the shipment of nickel to Tel Aviv and Brazil.
He refused to answer questions about recommending people with criminal records for such crucial dock jobs as that of union hiring boss. He refused to answer whether he received "any gifts of payments of money at any time from any of the stevedoring companies or any of the steamship companies." He refused to say "what your sources of income were, outside of what you received from the positions you had with the union."
A witness, Danny Gentile, then serving a life sentence for first-degree murder in a waterfront slaying, was brought from prison to testify about a lucrative numbers racket operation he ran on the docks. When asked about a certain Jackie Adams, Gentile identified him as "a partner in the numbers business." He was then asked: "With Dunn and McGrath and Gleason and these others that you've mentioned?" He replied: "That's right."
Gleason, when asked if he knew Gentile, who had testified hours before Gleason's appearance on the stand, replied: "I refuse to answer on the grounds it might tend to degrade and intimidate me."
Perhaps the president of the United States was not aware of that history or of the record of the ILA which, although restored to AFL-CIO membership, continues to have serious problems with the law. (In the last six years a score of its officials, including 10 vice presidents, have been convicted of racketeering, extortion and other charges.)
Perhaps all of this is irrelevant in the larger context of the president's remarks about the problems of Central America and what the United States response should be. Perhaps it is unfair to exhume these old bones, but I think not.
At the very least, the president's words about freedom and justice would be taken more seriously if he, or his aides, made certain they were addressed to the right people.