© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Vendetta' Recalls The Ruthless Rivalry Between Bobby Kennedy, Jimmy Hoffa


Here's an exchange from the 1950s that sounds more like a scene from an old movie than from an actual Senate committee hearing, which it was. The witness was Teamsters Union official Jimmy Hoffa. His interrogator was committee counsel Robert F. Kennedy, whose brother, Jack, was a senator who sat on the committee. The topic at this moment was the stewardship of the Teamsters by its president, Hoffa's nominal boss, Dave Beck. RFK asked Hoffa about the threat to organized labor from the left.


ROBERT F. KENNEDY: If communist unions ever gain a position to exercise influence in the transport lanes of the world, the free world will have suffered a staggering blow.

JIMMY HOFFA: I am not interested in Beck's politics or his philosophy. I'm interested in the workers.

KENNEDY: Well, do you agree with that?

HOFFA: No, I don't agree with it because the American worker will never put anybody ahead of union. That will disrupt the American system.

KENNEDY: Well, do you know who made that statement?

HOFFA: I don't know, and I don't care. Probably Beck. It sounds like him.

KENNEDY: Mr. James Riddle Hoffa.

HOFFA: I don't believe it.


KENNEDY: What do you think of that?

HOFFA: I don't believe it.

KENNEDY: What do you think of that?

SIEGEL: Those were still in the early days of the rivalry between Robert Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa, a rivalry that went on for seven years. It's the subject of James Neff's new book, "Vendetta." And James Neff joins us from Seattle. Welcome to the program.

JAMES NEFF: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And I want you to give us, first, some capsule summaries of these two men and how their lives intersected - first, Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters.

NEFF: Jimmy Hoffa was the president of the biggest, toughest, largest labor union in the country, the Teamsters - very powerful, very charismatic, a ninth-grade dropout. At the local level - the drivers, the warehousemen and others - they really backed him and supported him. And he was using friends and associates in organized crime to help him on his strikes and to help him get his way.

SIEGEL: He came up at a time when employers might hire thugs and dispatch police out to a picket line to beat people up. And the union guys would get thugs to beat those guys up.

NEFF: That's exactly right. In Detroit in the 1930s, the nickname, particularly in that city, was the bloody '30s. They would battle it out with sticks and chains, and one day, Hoffa was arrested I believe it was 17 times. They grab him at a picket line, throw him in jail. He'd get bonded out, and he'd go right back to the picket line and end up in jail.

SIEGEL: And in the other corner, Robert F. Kennedy.

NEFF: Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the future president of the United States - he later became Attorney General Kennedy. He did more to move, push, cajole the government into taking on organized crime than anybody else. One of his key campaigns - and this was the result of his role in the investigating committee - was to take on organized crime that had infiltrated honest labor unions and were a corrupting influence. So he led that charge.

SIEGEL: At a time when the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, was in a state of denial about organized crime.

NEFF: That was really quite surprising to Robert Kennedy, to learn that the FBI did not have files on these gangsters, yet a sister organization, the Bureau of Narcotics, did. Hoover resisted, but Kennedy was able to drag him, kicking and screaming, into the fight against organized crime simply because his brother was the president of the United States. After Jack Kennedy was assassinated, Hoover dropped his interest, and things started to slip down again.

SIEGEL: I played a clip there of Robert F. Kennedy getting the better of Jimmy Hoffa in those Senate hearings, but that was by no means the bottom line. Many people saw Kennedy's interrogation of Hoffa as, frankly, inept.

NEFF: It was inept. He - and oftentimes, Robert Kennedy was not a litigator. He didn't have a courtroom experience. And so he would cajole. He would ask questions. Hoffa knew what he was going to be asking, and he would tangle him up. He would say he couldn't remember. Sometimes he would even wink at Bobby Kennedy, just deliberately to destabilize him. And he was able to get Kennedy to lose his train of thought. So Kennedy was bested by Hoffa overall in the three times they tangled over the years in the Senate committee hearings.

SIEGEL: Robert Kennedy spoke of Jimmy Hoffa as the most dangerous man in America. And here's a clip of Hoffa with his appraisal of Robert Kennedy.


HOFFA: He wasn't a good attorney general - in all probability, a worse Senator. I would hate to think what would happen if he became president of the United States. He'd probably have a fascist government.

SIEGEL: Can you think of any figures in American public life today in comparably powerful situations who spoke of each other like that in public?

NEFF: I cannot, and I've tried to think of one. But the clash was ruthless, and it is unprecedented as far as I can determine.

SIEGEL: And deeply personal. In addition to all the politics and the power involved, these men really hated each other.

NEFF: They really, really hated each other. Hoffa embarrassed Kennedy. He went out of his way to do so. He was a master manipulator, a master negotiator, and he would use whatever tool he could get. And humiliating, taking the starch out of somebody, belittling them - that was right up his alley. And Kennedy was determined not to lose.

He came from - you know, he was sort of the runt of the family - the Kennedys. He would do whatever he could to help his brother, protect him, help him become president of the United States. And so he truly believed that Hoffa was very much an evil force for the economy and for the country. Others thought that his concerns were overblown, but these two men were oil and water. They really did not like each other.

SIEGEL: At the Justice Department, when Robert Kennedy became his brother's Attorney General, how many people were assigned to just working on Hoffa and trying to prosecute and convict Jimmy Hoffa?

NEFF: Robert Kennedy had a - what was the Get Hoffa Squad at Department of Justice. And at one point, there were 20 prosecutors who were assigned to taking on Hoffa and the Teamsters, running grand juries all across the country.

SIEGEL: Is it fair to say that after immersing yourself in the story of Hoffa and Robert Kennedy that you came out thinking a little less ill of Hoffa and a little more ill of Robert Kennedy than you did at the beginning?

NEFF: I think that's a fair assessment of my change of assessment. Hoffa was - you know, he was quite an excellent labor leader in terms of knowing the economics of trucking and transportation. He was able to push things and get contracts that didn't put the trucking companies out of business but got what he could for his workers. He was very much a health nut, actually. He wasn't smoking and drinking, and so he was able to get a lot of work done. But he was, you know, clearly corrupt. And Kennedy - he pushed the limits on some of these tactics. He crossed the line. He did things that today would get him thrown from office involving the IRS and involving some of the tactics the Justice Department took.

SIEGEL: A tactic like having an informant who was inside the Hoffa defense team in one of his trials.

NEFF: That kind of a tactic, or, you know, Hoffa's lawyer was illegally wiretapped on a visit to DC at Kennedy's request. In addition, you know, IRS audits of lawyers who represented Hoffa and the Teamsters - you know, you might say that that was - that would interfere with their ability to do their job for their clients. There's no doubt about that.

SIEGEL: James Neff, thank you very much for talking with us today.

NEFF: Thank you.

SIEGEL: James Neff's book is called "Vendetta: Bobby Kennedy Versus Jimmy Hoffa."


KENNEDY: So whose backs are you going to break, Mr. Hoffa?

HOFFA: Figure of speech - I know you know who I was talking about, and I know what you're talking about.

KENNEDY: Well, Mr. Hoffa, all I'm trying to find out - I'll tell you what I'm talking about. I'm trying to find out whose backs your going to break.

HOFFA: Figure of speech.


HOFFA: Figure of speech, Bobby.

KENNEDY: Figure of speech about what?

HOFFA: I don't know.

KENNEDY: Well, who were you talking about?

HOFFA: I have no knowledge of what you're talking about, and I don't. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.