Alex Lichtenstein teaches American history at Indiana University.
By James Neff
377 pp. $28
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-all-costs 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, “All my life, I been under investigation.” Although inconclusive, this “first face-off” (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 won the 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.”
In his 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.