In Washington, turf warfare can be blood sport. Colin Powell versus Dick Cheney in the W years. Nancy Reagan versus Don Regan in the 1980s. Henry Kissinger versus everyone in the Nixon and Ford days. But eclipsing these power feuds is the titanic clash between Robert Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover. This grudge match entailed much more than personality or policy. It was, in a way, a fight over the meaning of justice in America.
In “Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America,” Burton Hersh, a journalist and historian, chronicles a struggle that began years before Bobby Kennedy became attorney general in his brother’s administration and — in nominal terms — Hoover’s superior. The story is familiar. While Jack Kennedy thrived in the 1950s as a sex-crazed, drug-dependent, ailment-ridden party-boy politician, Bobby, the family’s complicated sourpuss, hooked up with the redbaiting Joe McCarthy, then spun off as a crusading and corners-cutting scourge of labor corruption. He pursued mobsters and was obsessed with Jimmy Hoffa. But there was a problem. Bobby’s father had built a fortune the old-fashioned way — by hook and by crook. As a banker and bootlegger, Joseph Kennedy had nuzzled with the not-so-good fellas Bobby wanted to hammer.
There was another problem as well. Hoover, the entrenched F.B.I. chieftain and pal of McCarthy, was not so keen on catching mobsters. He even denied the existence of organized crime and kept his agents far from its tracks, partly because, Hersh contends, Hoover knew too well that the mob had infiltrated the worlds of politics and business. Hunting the thugs could have placed Hoover and the F.B.I. on a collision course with the powerful. Communists were easier prey. So when Jack became president and appointed his ferocious brother attorney general, combat was unavoidable.
As Hersh describes it, this duel of leaks, blackmail and power plays occurred against the backdrop of Kennedy excess and pathos. The stakes were higher than the individual fortunes of Hoover and Bobby Kennedy. America was racked with crisis: the civil rights movement was challenging the nation’s conscience, a war was growing in Vietnam and an arms race was threatening nuclear war. Bobby may have had presidential prerogative on his side, but Hoover could wield files full of allegations about Jack and others. How this pas de deux played out helped define the nation at this transformational moment.
It was quite a story, with a supporting cast that was A-list — Martin Luther King Jr., Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Sam Giancana, Gloria Swanson, Lyndon Johnson, Roy Cohn — history as a Don DeLillo novel. But sad to say, Hersh, who years ago wrote a much-regarded book on the origins of the C.I.A., fails his material.
“Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America” is little more than a recycling of previously published books. Hersh lists 54 people he interviewed, but about a quarter of them are authors and journalists who have tilled the overworked Kennedy field. The rest offer little that is new. Worse, Hersh appears to regard all sources as equal. If an assertion, particularly a sleazy one, has ever appeared in a book, that’s apparently good enough for him. Some eye-popping tales of Kennedy sex and corruption have indeed been confirmed by reputable authors. (Yes, Jack shared a mistress with Sinatra and the mob man Giancana. Yes, Bobby bent to Hoover’s request to wiretap King.) But mounds of Kennedy garbage have also been peddled over the years, and Hersh does not distinguish between the proven and the alleged (or the discredited). Did Bobby really tag along on drug busts in the 1950s and engage in sex with apprehended hookers? Well, one book said he did. Covering the death of Marilyn Monroe, Hersh maintains that she and Bobby were lovers and that the Mafia had Monroe killed hours after Bobby was in her company in order to frame him. For this, Hersh relies on two unreliable books, one written by Giancana’s brother and nephew, the other by a deceased Los Angeles private investigator. Monroe’s death remains an official suicide, and as Evan Thomas notes in his biography of Bobby, “all that is certain” regarding his interactions with Monroe is that he “saw her on four occasions, probably never alone.” But it’s when the book reaches Nov. 22, 1963, that it truly jumps the rails. The assassination of John Kennedy is the black hole of contemporary American history, and Hersh doesn’t escape its pull. He repeats the well-worn claims of the it-wasn’t-just-Oswald partisans and brings nothing fresh to the autopsy table. Citing one book of uncertain credibility, he claims former President Gerald Ford publicly confessed he had covered up F.B.I. and C.I.A. evidence indicating that Kennedy “had been caught in a crossfire in Dallas” and that two Mafia notables “had orchestrated the assassination plot.” An Internet search I conducted turned up no confirmation of such a momentous confession.
Hersh fares better when it comes to the bigger picture. Hoover and Kennedy, he notes, possessed profoundly contrasting views of midcentury America. For Hoover, Hersh writes, “America amounted to a kind of Christian-pageant fantasy of the System” that was threatened by “Commies and beatniks and race-mixers ... hell-bent to eradicate this utopia.” Kennedy saw “gangsters” undermining unions, corporate America and, yes, even politics. Here was the nub of their quarrel: subversion versus corruption. Though Hersh goes soft on Hoover toward the end, his book renders a clear judgment: Bobby Kennedy was closer to the mark than his rival. That he did not live long enough to better Hoover and, more important, prove the point compounds the tragedy of his sad death.
Thanks to David Corn
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