Burton Hersh, the author of two books on the Kennedys and an authoritative book on the founders of the CIA, “The Old Boys”, was ambivalent about writing Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America.
At first, Hersh wanted to keep the book narrowly focused, “though honest.” Too wide an historical orbit, he thought, “was likely to scorch out sources and friends whom I have cherished since the middle sixties.” But he had become privy through his contacts to new information, and the book flowered under his hand. Hersh’s scorched friends and sources are not likely to be indifferent to the book. Nor is anyone else who reads it.
The face page at the beginning of Bobby and J. Edgar carries a quote from Ralph Martin’s Seeds of Destruction: “John F. Kennedy ‘told his good friend John Sharon that if he had his life to live over again, he would have a different father, a different wife, and a different religion.” Sometimes in the face of brute reality, one prefers to sink into the plush arms of one’s illusions. The mythology surrounding the Kennedy family is more soothing, more edifying even, that the naked truths explored in Bobby and J. Edgar.
J. Edgar of the title was, of course, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation J. Edgar Hoover, and Bobby was former President John F. Kennedy’s Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. As a senator, when Bobby decided to rout the mob, little did he realize that the neighborhood he intended to sanitize had connections with his sometime too solicitous father, the resourceful Joe Kennedy, entrepreneur, financier, former Court of Saint James Ambassador to Great Britain in the Roosevelt administration, confident of Sam Giancana and his opposite number J. Edgar.
Hersh is a masterful wordsmith. Consider the following caricature of Bobby working the floor at the Democrat National Convention that was instrumental in sending his brother to the White House:
“A scrawny, tousled bird, his rubbery lips writing with impatience around the assertive front teeth, those pale assessing eyes beneath their sweeping folds aglitter beside his harsh chopped beak of a nose. Sleeves rolled up, by midmorning the shirttail would be blousing out and the knot on his necktie worked halfway down the front. Perspiration stood in dark blotches. All business every minute, running down the delegate count.”
The trick in writing books of this kind lies in providing the reader an aperture though which may be seen a historical period and its principal characters, while at the same time being faithful to the public and private record. The peg upon which Hersh hangs his narrative is the clash -- not always public, for Hoover rarely showed his hand; he was an equal opportunity manipulator -- between a hopelessly idealist Bobby Kennedy and a worldly wise, sometime world weary triumvirate that included his ambitious father, Hoover and his brother the president, whose relationship with Sam Giancana, a mobster and one of the principal actors in the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco, is examined closely in “Bobby and J.Edgar.”
Bobby and the FBI chief were bound to bang heads after JFK appointed his brother Attorney General and the energetic Bobby decided to go after the Mob. Little did Bobby realize that his father’s own personal orbit intersected with some shady characters that included many politicians, organized crime figures and the white knight of crime fighting, Hoover himself, keeper-in-chief of the secret files he used to manipulate many of the characters occupying the political stage in which Bobby and JFK and their father moved and operated.
Here is Bobby dilating on Hoover: When Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s close associate, was in the hospital Bobby asked, “What was it? A hysterectomy? … Any day now, I expect him to show up at work wearing one of Jackie Dior’s creations.” Very likely these bon motes may have been netted by Hoover in one of his frequent wiretaps. Secretly, Hoover was providing to the ambitious Attorney General the information on Giancana he needed to bust up the Mob. But that information led, by a back door, to the front door of Bobby’s father and brother – and Hoover knew it.
“After two harrowing years in office,” Hersh writes, “Robert Kennedy had genuinely come to understand that Mob history intersected along the fault lines of Joe Kennedy’s career.” Bobby, now compromised, quietly retreated. “Bobby took me off the Chicago investigation,” said Ed Silberling, appointed by the attorney general to head the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, “just when I began to come up with information, the reason being that his father was often mentioned in connection with the Mafia. He was interested in crime-busting only to the extent that his family wasn’t involved.”
Once asked if he expected that presidential candidate John Kennedy might have trouble with the Pope, Harry Truman quipped, “It’s not the Pope, it’s the Pop.” There was little that Pop Kennedy was not involved in. The force that held together Kennedy family was considerably diminished after Joe Kennedy had his stroke. The Bay of Pigs fiasco was a “smoking ruin” before Bobby understood that Giancana, who had devised a way to poison Fidel Castro, had been involved in the mess. By that time the sheen on Camelot was fading. The president was a near invalid, Bobby had been surreptitiously recruited by Hoover to place wire taps on Martin Luther King’s phones at a time when the black leader was gaining in stature and prominence. The center, it appeared, could no longer hold.
The whole thing, eventually, became bullet ridden. Giancana was assassinated, likely by an even then diminishing Mob. JFK was assassinated, and Hersh here explores possible Mob involvement in the president’s death. The president’s assassin was assassinated, and later Bobby, perhaps the most honorable of the Kennedys, went down in a hail of bullets.
“Tragedy,” Bobby had said following his brother’s death, “is a tool for living.” The overarching thesis of Hersh's book is that the bullets, as well as the tragedy are connected.
Bobby and J. Edgar
The Historic Face-off Between The Kennedys
And J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America
By Burton Hersh
Publisher: Carol & Graf/Perseus