Vendetta: Bobby Kennedy versus Jimmy Hoffa

… By James Neff

Reviewed by Steven R. Maher

(InCity Times Book Review)

In 1975 former Teamsters President James R. Hoffa mysteriously disappeared. Hoffa has not been seen or heard from since, except from for the people who kidnapped and presumably killed him. Hoffa’s life was defined in large part by his decade-long feud with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who was convinced that Hoffa was a tool of organized crime.

Hoffa’s disappearance coincided with his efforts to regain the Teamster’s Presidency. It was widely speculated – but never conclusively proved – that Hoffa was in fact assassinated by organized crime to prevent him from regaining the Teamster’s Presidency.

The two men could not have been raised in more different environments: Kennedy was the son of one of America’s richest men, attended elite pre-college schools as a teenager, and attended Harvard. Hoffa’s father died of a stroke and his mother was left with four children to raise in an era where there was no social safety net. She took in laundry to make ends meet.

Hardscrabble poor

“Hoffa and his brother Bill, eighteen months older, trapped birds, snared rabbits, and caught fish for the supper tables,” writes Neff. “[T]hey harvested apples, pears, strawberries, hickory nuts, and walnuts – anything within arm’s reach or a few steps inside a fence.”

Eventually, Hoffa’s mother moved the family to Detroit, where she worked in an auto factory. Surrounded by immigrants who scorned the Hoffas as “hillbillies,” Hoffa and his siblings found themselves fighting off bullies. Hoffa dropped out of school at the 9th grade. It was in this savage world of poverty and brutality that Hoffa came to see life as a Darwinian jungle where only the fittest survived.

Hoffa eventually got a job at a produce plant, where he led a walkout against a very exploitive management and negotiated a fairer deal for his co-workers. The striking workers evolved into a Teamster’s local, and Hoffa’s career as a union organizer was launched.

Not hagiography

Hoffa owed his ascension to the Teamster’s Presidency to Kennedy. Teamsters President Dave Beck was charged with misusing Teamster’s funds to enrich himself after Kennedy (then Chief Counsel for one of the rackets committees) investigated Beck’s finances. After this cleared the way for Hoffa to become Teamster President, Kennedy turned his eyes towards him.

Kennedy was convinced that Hoffa was an evil figure. Kennedy was “driven by a conviction of righteousness, a fanaticism of virtue, a certitude about guilt that vaulted over gaps of evidence” wrote Neff, quoting longtime Kennedy friend and biographer Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

The rest of this book is taken up by Kennedy’s pursuit of Hoffa. After John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960, he appointed his younger brother Robert Attorney General. RFK began an all-out war against the Mafia, which some historians believed backfired into President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. RFK continued to pursue Hoffa, who was imprisoned in 1967 on jury tampering charges. The animus Hoffa felt towards the Kennedys was summed up by Hoffa’s venomous remarks upon hearing of President Kennedy’s assassination: “They killed the son of a bitch. I hope the worms eat out his [President Kennedy’s] eyes.”

Neff went out of his way to be balanced. Much of what has been about the Kennedy brothers since the 1960s has been hagiography, depicting them as iconic figures. Neff portrays Robert Kennedy as a flawed human being, driven by a righteous vindictiveness to put Hoffa in prison no matter what. Hoffa’s wrongdoing, such as allowing mobsters to loot the Teamster’s pension fund to finance Las Vegas casinos, seems to have been downplayed as well for the same reason.

Readers looking for the details on JFK’s 1963 assassination, the 1968 murder of Robert Kennedy, and Hoffa’s 1975 disappearance will be disappointed. These subjects are touched on only in passing; Hoffa’s disappearance is summed up in only two pages. Earlier in the book Neff spends a great of time reviewing the Mafia’s acid blinding by crusading journalist Victor Riesel, a sidebar that pretty much went nowhere.

This is not the last we will hear on the Kennedy-Hoffa feud. The subject is too important to the development of the labor movement in mid-twentieth century America. Neff has substantially enhanced the record. The definitive book remains to be written.