Most Americans reacted with sorrow to the news that President John F. Kennedy had been fatally shot in Dallas, Texas on Nov. 22, 1963. One man, however, was thrilled; he climbed atop a chair at the Miami restaurant where he was eating lunch and began cheering. He later offered this condolence: “I hope the worms eat out his eyes.”
That cruel remark was made by Jimmy Hoffa, the controversial leader of the Teamsters union who at the time of JFK’s assassination was under investigation by the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The long, bitter, and often public conflict between Robert Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa is the subject of journalist James Neff’s compelling new book, Vendetta.
The story opens with a 1956 attack against the New York labor columnist Victor Riesel. A man hurled a jar of sulfuric acid into his face after Riesel, whose writings railed against the mob-backed corruption in labor unions, revealed that he would be a star witness in a grand jury investigation against the New York Teamsters. Prosecutors eventually traced the attack back to the criminal underworld and Jimmy Hoffa.
Robert Kennedy had always had a strong interest in criminal justice; he used to ride along with federal narcotics agents in New York City in the 1950s as a kind of extracurricular pastime that might help him understand the structures of organized crime. By 1956, he was the chief counsel for the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
The investigation that followed the attack on Riesel soon implicated Hoffa, who was called before Kennedy’s Senate Subcommittee to testify. Hoffa made liberal use of the Fifth Amendment at the hearings, repeatedly refusing to answer questions or claiming he had suddenly forgotten some vital piece of information. Robert Kennedy publicly scolded him: “You have had the worst case of amnesia in the last two days I have ever heard of.” Hoffa, meanwhile, alternated between attempts to charm and intimidate RFK; one moment he would glower and glare at him, the next he would smile and wink.
Though RFK’s questions made Hoffa look foolish and shady, they did not result in a successful criminal prosecution. That achievement did not arrive for another seven years. By then RFK had helped his brother win the presidency, accepted the position of Attorney General, and suffered the shock and grief of JFK’s assassination. But he never lost sight of Hoffa.
The two continued to trade public jibes in the intervening years. Hoffa called RFK a “spoiled brat” and a “spoiled millionaire.” He once made a public statement promising to break both of RFK’s arms. A nationally televised comment by RFK that Hoffa was worse than a thief, in turn, prompted the labor leader to respond with a libel lawsuit.
The most important parts of their conflict, however, did not involve trading insults before the court of public opinion. As Attorney General, RFK leveraged his influence to mount a massive multiple agency inquiry into Hoffa. The team of investigators, known as the Get Hoffa Squad, ultimately made the most headway by scouring IRS documents to demonstrate tax fraud. Before they could secure a conviction, however, Hoffa committed another type of crime: jury-tampering. The FBI was able to use newly miniaturized recording technology to capture Hoffa discussing plans to bribe a juror on tape.
The corrupt union leader was ultimately sentenced to eight years in prison. He had skimmed money from the retirement funds of union pensioners, taken bribes from companies to negotiate lower wages and meager benefits for unionized workers, resorted to violence to intimidate those who refuse to join the union, and stolen union dues to fund a lavish lifestyle.
James Neff’s book is meticulously researched and briskly narrated. His main subject is RFK and Hoffa, but he also includes other fascinating cultural history relevant to the story – everything from the many adulteries of JFK to the first application of precise political polling in a presidential election.
After RFK was shot and killed in Los Angeles in 1968, Jimmy Hoffa made no wishes involving worms and the eyes of the deceased. But he didn’t disguise his feelings: “I can’t honestly say I felt bad about it,” he said. “Our vendetta has been too long and too strong.”