In January 1957, as the newly appointed chief counsel to the Senate’s Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor and Management Field, Robert F. Kennedy began his pursuit of Jimmy Hoffa, the union boss who was said to be the most improper of them all. The clash quickly took on a primal hue.
They met for the first time that winter. Kennedy, who was 5-foot-10, wasn’t unhappy to find himself peering down at the 5-foot-5-inch Teamsters executive. Hoffa came away telling friends that RFK had a feeble handshake. (Later, in union press releases, he sometimes referred to his nemesis as “Bobbie,” trying to feminize Kennedy with a bit of cutesy spelling.)
This was not unusual—their ongoing conflict was basically one long barroom stare-down. James Neff describes a fairly typical encounter between the two men in his brisk and expansive new book, Vendetta: Bobby Kennedy Versus Jimmy Hoffa: “Bizarrely, somehow the standoff (at a Washington courthouse) turned into a discussion about physical fitness, which devolved into juvenile boasting about who could do more push-ups. (Hoffa said he could do thirty-five, and RFK said he could do more).”
Yet for all the manly posturing, there was a tremendous amount of authentic, high-stakes drama in the Hoffa-Kennedy war.
As part of a protracted quest to throw Hoffa in jail for his flagrantly corrupt deeds as a top official with the powerful International Brotherhood of Teamsters trucking union, Kennedy repeatedly grilled the union leader on the Senate floor, placed spies within his organization and impaneled federal grand juries in cities across the country.
Hoffa responded by trying to topple the Kennedy political dynasty, using his platform and his union’s money in an effort to elect Richard Nixon in 1960. According to a former associate, he considered having RFK murdered, and when he learned of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Neff writes, Hoffa “was said to have stood up, climbed on a chair, and cheered.”
Hoffa would ultimately be convicted of several crimes and sentenced to a lengthy prison term; he had served more than four years when Nixon pardoned him in 1971, and 40 years ago this July, he vanished for good, a disappearance that remains unexplained.
But as documented by Neff, RFK’s case against Hoffa did not get off to a rip-roaring start.
In the summer of 1956, Kennedy was little more than a glorified government lawyer. In his role with the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, he’d recently completed an unspectacular probe of shady dealings in the military-uniform business. But exciting things began to happen when he was approached by a fearless reporter named Clark Mollenhoff.
Writing for a couple of Midwestern newspapers, Mollenhoff had unearthed lots of evidence that Teamsters Vice President Hoffa was a thief and a bully, skimming money from union contracts, building a network of street-level enforcers and installing lackeys in influential positions. There was also reason to believe that Hoffa was behind a 1956 incident in which another labor journalist, Victor Riesel, was attacked by a man who threw acid in his face.
Mollenhoff had exposed Hoffa in print, but his reporting had few real-world implications. Now he wanted Kennedy and his fellow congressional investigators to take up the fight.
The 30-year-old RFK was hesitant—and, it seems, rather naïve. Neff notes that Kennedy himself “would later admit that…he found it hard to accept that bankers, lawyers, company executives, and union leaders colluded at the expense of rank-and-file workers.” Yet he was also a man who would respond to macho goading, and when Mollenhoff kept at it—“I taunted him by questioning his courage to take on such an investigation” is how the reporter remembered it a 1965 book—he decided to make a run at Hoffa and other allegedly crooked union bosses.
By the winter of 1956-57, Kennedy had secured a job as the top lawyer for the Improper Activities in Labor and Management panel, colloquially referred to as the Senate’s Rackets Committee. With the aid of a union mole, RFK soon indicted Hoffa for bribery; the Teamsters exec thought he was buying secret info about the government’s investigation of his union, but federal agents were watching him the whole time. Still, Hoffa beat the charges.
Just a few months later, he was elected Teamsters president, his rise seemingly fueled by his facility for vanquishing the feds.
Kennedy kept after Hoffa for the rest of the 1950s, calling him before Congress and trying to catch him in lies about sketchy land deals and off-the-books loans; subpoenaing insurance companies that had issued policies for Hoffa’s wife’s furs and jewelry; and questioning “more than fifteen hundred witnesses,” according to Neff. He even made his case with an overblown monologue on late-night TV, telling NBC’s Jack Paar during a July 1959 appearance on The Tonight Show that the nation’s future hung in the balance. “This country can’t survive if you have someone like him operating,” Kennedy said.
Two months later, his brother’s run for the White House a near certainty, RFK announced that he was leaving his Rackets Committee post. If the RFK-Hoffa duel had ended then and there, the wounded but still standing labor leader would’ve been declared the undisputed winner.
“He so far had survived the longest, most extensive congressional investigation in history,” Neff writes, “one that, at its peak, employed more than one hundred government lawyers, investigators, accountants, and support staff. He had been charged on four separate occasions in federal court: for bribery, perjury, and twice for wiretapping. Each time he beat back the indictments.”
But with RFK transitioning into his new role as his brother’s campaign manager, Hoffa realized that a Kennedy presidency would subject him to another round of federal heat. And so, armed with a Teamster war chest specifically earmarked for political purposes, Hoffa spent an indeterminate fortune trying to defeat JFK. It didn’t work.
JFK’s win turned out to be even worse for Hoffa than he might’ve imagined. Taking over at the Justice Department, newly appointed Attorney General RFK launched a big anticorruption agenda. A key part of this initiative was a group of lawyers sometimes called the “Get Hoffa” unit. Their “mission was personal—finish the job on Hoffa that had been started in the Senate,” Neff says.
Though a 1962 federal corruption case against him ended in a hung jury, Hoffa was hauled back into court in ’64, accused of jury tampering in the previous trial. This time they got him. “RFK’s seven-year losing streak against Hoffa had finally been broken,” Neff writes. A second conviction followed, this one for monkeying with his members’ pension funds, and though he remained free on appeal for a time, Hoffa finally went to prison in 1967.
The sort of reader who’s inclined to pick up this book will likely be quite familiar with the two combatants, and though the outcome is never up for grabs, Neff, a Seattle Times editor and the author of several true-crime titles, knows when to charge ahead with an urgent new plot development, and when to hang back and fill in some of the blanks about his main characters’ very different backstories.
He also recognizes that the most sensational aspect of the Hoffa story—the gone-forever disappearance—is a narrative black hole, and instead of speculating about what might have become of the infamous union boss, he concentrates his efforts on a finite but highly eventful period of time. The end product is a fast-moving story that features some truly ludicrous subplots. (How ludicrous? One of Hoffa’s lawyers was punished for tampering with a jury—during a trial in which his client was trying to beat a previous jury-tampering charge.)
Vendetta isn’t the most suspenseful book published this year, but it’s sharp-eyed, exactingly written and consistently entertaining, a fascinating blow-by-blow of a prodigious battle of wills.