The shady union boss and the cru­sad­ing coun­sel

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY ALEX LICHT­EN­STEIN book­world@wash­ Alex Licht­en­stein teaches Amer­i­can history at In­di­ana Univer­sity.

In “Vendetta,” vet­eran Seat­tle in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter James Neff turns his hand to dis­in­ter­ring the com­plex and long-run­ning bat­tle be­tween James R. Hoffa and Robert F. Kennedy. The cen­ter­piece of Neff ’s story is the “long­est, most ex­ten­sive con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tion in history,” con­ducted by the bi­par­ti­san Se­lect Com­mit­tee on Im­proper Ac­tiv­i­ties in the La­bor or Man­age­ment Field, pop­u­larly known in the late 1950s as the Rack­ets Com­mit­tee. Hoffa, the wily and brash pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Brother­hood of Team­sters, was the com­mit­tee’s pri­mary tar­get. Kennedy, the young and am­bi­tious com­mit­tee coun­sel work­ing in the shadow of his sen­a­tor brother, made it his mis­sion, as well as his ticket to renown, to ex­pose Hoffa and the crim­i­nal in­fil­tra­tion of the trade union move­ment. Though born and bred in very dif­fer­ent worlds, the two men shared a win-at-all­costs at­ti­tude and an in­tense, mas­cu­line pride in be­ing tougher than their ad­ver­saries.

In the first set of hear­ings in 1957, when faced with Kennedy’s re­lent­less ques­tion­ing, Hoffa mostly ap­peared un­flap­pable. As the la­bor leader coolly pointed out, “Allmy life, I been un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.” Although in­con­clu­sive, this “first face­off” (as Neff calls it) in­au­gu­rated what Pierre Salinger called a “blood feud” be­tween the pug­na­cious Detroit street­fighter and the young coun­sel. A sec­ond round of hear­ings called a year later proved equally in­con­clu­sive, leav­ing Kennedy vis­i­bly frus­trated, much to Hoffa’s de­light.

Hoffa was even­tu­ally slapped with a fed­eral per­jury charge and ex­pelled from the AFL-CIO along with his union, but in the mean­time, he won­the 1957 Team­ster elec­tion hand­ily. As Neff notes, the union mem­ber­ship was “ei­ther unim­pressed by the . . . charges or en­raged by the Se­nate com­mit­tee’s med­dling” in Team­ster af­fairs.

With the 1960 elec­tion of John F. Kennedy as pres­i­dent and the in­stal­la­tion of Bobby as at­tor­ney gen­eral, Hoffa quipped that he would “have to hire two hun­dred more lawyers to keep out of jail.” He wasn’t far wrong: In Neff ’s view, Bobby Kennedy had “an am­bi­tious plan to nail Hoffa” and cre­ated a se­cre­tive “Get Hoffa squad” in­side the Jus­tice Depart­ment. In truth, how­ever, Kennedy set his sights on or­ga­nized crime in gen­eral, not just Hoffa. Neff, in his de­ter­mi­na­tion to cram ev­ery­thing into the Kennedy-Hoffa ri­valry, ex­ag­ger­ates the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s vendetta against the la­bor leader, of­ten tak­ing the ag­grieved Hoffa and his de­fend­ers at their word. Neff leans heav­ily on Ni­cholas Katzen­bach’s memoir of serv­ing un­der Bobby in the Kennedy Jus­tice Depart­ment, but in fact Katzen­bach de­nies that Kennedy sin­gled out Hoffa for pros­e­cu­tion or cut corners to get him. The at­tor­ney gen­eral had many other things on his mind, in­clud­ing the civil rights move­ment and the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis.

Mean­while, Hoffa went from strength to strength, be­com­ing “per­ma­nent pres­i­dent of the big­gest, bad­dest, most pow­er­ful la­bor union in Amer­i­can history.” Even while fac­ing trial for jury tam­per­ing in 1963, the Team­sters boss used his clout to se­cure a na­tional master freight con­tract for his mem­ber­ship that, Neff says, “vaulted Hoffa into the ranks of great la­bor lead­ers.”

In­his re­lent­less fo­cus on the dra­matic show­down be­tween these two com­pelling fig­ures, Neff misses the op­por­tu­nity to delve into some in­trigu­ing sideshows. For ex­am­ple, Barry Gold­wa­ter and other con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans sym­pa­thized with Hoffa, whom they saw as a con­trast to the more po­lit­i­cally en­gaged union­ism preached by the United Au­towork­ers’ Wal­ter Reuther. At the same time, these politi­cians hoped in­ves­ti­ga­tions of Team­sters cor­rup­tion would tar the en­tire la­bor move­ment with the brush of crim­i­nal­ity and rack­e­teer­ing. To a large ex­tent, their hopes were re­al­ized. The 1957 hear­ings “left a stain that was spread­ing to la­bor in gen­eral,” as Neff notes. The Rack­ets Com­mit­tee cul­mi­nated in the 1959 Lan­drum-Grif­fin Act, which tem­pered mob in­flu­ence and made it far more dif­fi­cult to or­ga­nize unions.

While it makes for a good story, the bit­ter ri­valry be­tween Kennedy and Hoffa has its lim­its. Once the gavel de­scends on the Rack­ets Com­mit­tee hear­ings about half­way through the book, “Vendetta” loses some sharp­ness of fo­cus. At times Neff ’s prose be­comes repet­i­tive and de­riv­a­tive of other ac­counts. For ex­am­ple, he dis­cusses the machi­na­tions of the 1960 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign at length but of­fers lit­tle new to this well-known tale. Sure, Kennedy took a public swat at Hoffa dur­ing the cam­paign, and Hoffa, Neff claims, “served as a one-man Kennedy wreck­ing crew.” But this was by no means the cen­ter­piece of a hard-fought and close cam­paign that turned on many is­sues be­sides the Team­sters boss’s ill-got­ten gains or his hap­less dirty tricks on be­half of Nixon.

Sur­pris­ingly, Bobby Kennedy comes off in Neff ’s ac­count as a rather un­ap­peal­ing com­mis­sar. His ob­ses­sion with bring­ing Hoffa down seems driven by the kind of moral pu­rity that, a decade later, made him a hero to op­po­nents of the war in Viet­nam. But in his cru­sade against the Team­sters’ leader, char­ac­ter­ized by ques­tion­able tac­tics (such as in­fil­trat­ing de­fense teams and mis­us­ing the power of the IRS), Kennedy seemed heed­less of the larger dam­age he might do to the in­ves­tiga­tive process, let alone the la­bor move­ment. As a Team­sters lawyer ob­served, “Bobby’s flaw . . . was that he turned each case into a per­sonal cause.” The an­i­mus in this in­stance was strong enough that Kennedy even sus­pected that Hoffa might have had a hand in the as­sas­si­na­tion of his brother.

Neff ’s saga ends with a whim­per rather than a bang, as Kennedy’s Jus­tice Depart­ment fi­nally con­victs Hoffa for jury tam­per­ing and the skim­ming of union pen­sion funds in 1964. Peo­pled by larger-than life, clever lawyers, sleazy in­ves­ti­ga­tors, obese hood­lums and shad­owy turn­coats, “Vendetta” will grab read­ers’ at­ten­tion. But it of­fers pre­cious few in­sights into the larger fate of the union move­ment or one of its most pow­er­ful and tragic fig­ures.


Team­sters boss James R. Hoffa, right, with Robert F. Kennedy, coun­sel for the Se­nate panel known as the Rack­ets Com­mit­tee, in 1957. Hoffa was a pri­mary tar­get of the com­mit­tee.

VENDETTA Bobby Kennedy Ver­sus Jimmy Hoffa By James Neff Lit­tle Brown. 377 pp. $28

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