Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud That Defined a Decadeby Jeff Shesol
"Mutual Contempt is at once a fascinating study in character and an illuminating meditation on the role character can play in shaping history."Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy loathed each other. Their antagonism, propelled by clashing personalities, contrasting views, and a deep, abiding animosity, would drive them to a
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"Mutual Contempt is at once a fascinating study in character and an illuminating meditation on the role character can play in shaping history."Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy loathed each other. Their antagonism, propelled by clashing personalities, contrasting views, and a deep, abiding animosity, would drive them to a bitterness so deep that even civil conversation was often impossible. Played out against the backdrop of the turbulent 1960s, theirs was a monumental political battle that would shape federal policy, fracture the Democratic party, and have a lasting effect on the politics of our times. Drawing on previously unexamined recordings and documents, as well as memoirs, biographies, and scores of personal interviews, Jeff Shesol weaves the threads of this epic story into a compelling narrative that reflects the impact of LBJ and RFK's tumultuous relationship on politics, civil rights, the war on poverty, and the war in Vietnam. As Publishers Weekly noted, "This is indispensable reading for both experts on the period and newcomers to the history of that decade." "An exhaustive and fascinating history. . . . Shesol's grasp of the era's history is sure, his tale often entertaining, and his research awesome."Russell Baker, New York Review of Books "Thorough, provocative. . . . The story assumes the dimensions of a great drama played out on a stage too vast to comprehend."Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post (1997 Critic's Choice) "This is the most gripping political book of recent years."Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
(Michiko Kakutani New York Times
Washington Post (1997 Critic's Choice)
Entire books have been written examining Lyndon Johnson's presidency in which Robert F. Kennedy is but a very minor player. In his book, Shesol filters Johnson's entire vice-presidential and presidential careers through the lens of his hatred of Robert Kennedy and RFK's reciprocal contempt for Johnson. In his first book, Shesol, a political cartoonist, sets out to prove that from 1959 to 1968 both Kennedy and Johnson made "few important decisions without first considering" their mutual contempt, which was "the defining relationship of their political lives." Shesol offers a mountain of evidence to buttress these original claims. The book is filled to overflowing with detailed reconstructions of many of the political actions RFK and LBJ took. Shesol is correctto a very limited degree. The two men hated each other viciously, and their hatred had an impact on some of their political decisions. Those facts are well documented here and elsewhere. But Shesol does not come close to proving that the mutual hatred was a key factor in Johnson's presidency or in Kennedy's political career. Shesol claims, for example, that Johnson's Vietnam War policy making, by mid-1967, was "inextricably bound to the Johnson-Kennedy feud." The feud had some impact, but Shesol either ignores or cursorily mentions the many other, much more crucial factors. They include the intransigence of the Vietnamese communists, the weakness of our South Vietnamese ally, pressures from the American Joint Chiefs and from conservative Republicans, threats from China, and Johnson's strong desire to win the 1964 election and, later, enact his Great Society programs.
A myopic portrait of two powerful politicians that all but ignores any actions other than their spiteful, petulant, petty personal feuding.
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CHAPTER ONE Prelude to a Feud In the late autumn of 1959, Senator John Kennedy dispatched his younger brother, Robert, to the Texas ranch of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Bobby Kennedy's visit to the Senate majority leader had the appearance of a political ritual, a deferential nod to a party elder. It was not. In the pursuit of the 1960 Democratic nomination for president, Johnson was not John Kennedy's potential patron but his potential rival. Bobby Kennedy, as his brother's campaign manager, traveled to Texas not to seek Johnson's blessing but to size up his ambitions. Arriving at the ranch, Bobby aimed his brother's questions at Johnson with the grim precision of a prosecutor. Was Johnson in or out? Whose side was he on? Johnson, in a long and rambling talk, left Bobby with three clear impressions: that LBJ would not run for the presidency, would neither help nor harm John Kennedy's candidacy, and would do all he could to deny a third nomination to Adlai Stevenson, who, despite successive debacles in 1952 and 1956, was making it known in Washington that he wanted another chance. Johnson seemed resolute; Kennedy placed considerable faith in his promises. In time, LBJ was to break all three. Bobby Kennedy's overnight stay was amiable, by all accounts, but marred by a disturbing incident. Johnson insisted that the two men hunt deer; with political guests it was his custom, a frontier ritual. Kennedy dutifully marched through the woods of the LBJ ranch, carrying a borrowed shotgun. He stopped short and fired at a deer. The gun's powerful recoil threw Kennedy backward, knocking him to the ground and cutting his brow. The towering Johnson reached down to help Kennedy to his feet. "Son," he told Bobby dismissively, "you've got to learn to handle a gun like a man." Johnson's withering disdain was an assertion of his political primacy. He might--for now, at least--have stepped out of John Kennedy's path to the White House, but Johnson would not bow before the vaunted Kennedy "machine." Even on the sidelines LBJ would continue to cast a very large shadow on the race. His patronizing tone toward Bobby reflected Johnson's assessment--a reckless one, events would show--of the Kennedys' political acuity. Johnson was soon to regret his flippancy. But now, in 1959, his advantage over Kennedy was beyond question. The thirty-four-year-old Bobby was, after all, almost young enough to be Johnson's "son." He had held no elective office, only staff positions in the Senate--Johnson's Senate. He was the younger brother of a "playboy" senator who was widely liked and even envied by LBJ and his colleagues, but hardly feared. It was Robert Kennedy who now lay prostrate before Johnson, not the reverse. To the Senate majority leader, in 1959, it must have seemed the natural order of things. Never had a majority leader dominated the Senate more fully than Lyndon Baines Johnson. With his overpowering persona and ambition, organizational skill, and manic, restless devotion to the task, he molded Senate Democrats into a surprisingly unified force during the Eisenhower years. He infused the Senate with an energy and relevance it had lacked since the days of the New Deal. Johnson's ascent was quick and unconventional. Entering the Senate in 1949 after a controversial election and twelve years' service in the House, LBJ found his ideal environment. "Mr. Johnson took to the Senate as if he'd been born there," recalled Walter Jenkins, one of LBJ's closest aides. "From the first day on it was obvious that it was his place." Johnson secured a largely ceremonial, procedural post and transformed it into a focus of unprecedented reach and power--just as he had done in the Little Congress (a mock House for congressional secretaries) after his arrival in Washington in the early 1930s. Halfway through his first Senate term he was minority leader, and in 1955, following the Democrats' narrow victory in the 1954 midterm elections, Lyndon Johnson became the youngest majority leader in American history. Johnson's hold over his colleagues depended largely on his skillfully overbearing personal style. Political observers tagged it "the Johnson Treatment," and it was a whirlwind of emotions almost paralyzing in its intensity. "Its tone," observed columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, "could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, the hint of threat. It was all of these together." Johnson bent his colleagues backward, physically and figuratively, under his enormous frame and by the sheer force of his will. Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota would slink from a room, pleading for a cigarette break, to escape a face-to-face encounter with LBJ. The Johnson Treatment was partly intuitive and partly the product of discreet calculation. LBJ's understanding of senators' individual vulnerabilities was innate, but he also scripted, rehearsed, and contrived seemingly spontaneous encounters in Capitol corridors. "Johnson knew how to woo people," remembered Humphrey, the frequent object of LBJ's attention. "He was sort of like a cowboy making love.... He knew how to massage the senators." Johnson knew whom to nurture, whom to threaten, and whom to push aside. The whole chamber seemed subject to his manipulation. "He played it like an organ," exclaimed Time's Hugh Sidey. "Goddamn, it was beautiful! It was just marvelous." Johnson's mastery of the Senate required more than a powerful personality; his knowledge of policy and procedure were superlative. He wielded an arsenal of statistical information, fishing through his large pockets for crucial memos or clippings. He followed and orchestrated the chamber's every activity from bill markups to floor votes. Pacing tirelessly in his enormous, ornate office, a cigarette in one hand and a telephone--always a telephone--in the other, LBJ worked his dedicated staff to the limits of physical and mental exhaustion, demanding that they match his own relentless pace. Many did not; even an articulate Texan who did, Harry McPherson, thought Johnson's use of his staff "callous and wasteful." LBJ seemed to regard the men around him, whether staff members or senators, "as fungible parts of an army whose purpose was to serve, equip, and sustain its general in his infinite tasks." Their reward was a smothering embrace--and the near-constant exhilaration of progress. All of the decade's significant domestic reforms bore the LBJ brand. In Sidey's view, Johnson and his fellow Texan Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn "literally ran the country" in the 1950s. "They were the President and the Vice President.... Christ, [Ike] didn't run the government." Yet Johnson maintained great respect for both the president and his office. LBJ's leadership was expressly bipartisan and nonconfrontational--in his words, the "politics of responsibility." On foreign matters, Johnson backed the president and former general unquestioningly. Domestically, while Republican senators bickered openly about their agenda, Johnson's Democrats--despite considerable divisions--secured important reforms in Social Security, housing, and agriculture and on the minimum wage. Johnson's success derived from his great flexibility. The essence of Lyndon Johnson's legislative strategy, the complement to the Treatment, was what Evans and Novak called the Procedure: "On any major piece of legislation, never make a commitment as to what will pass; determine in advance what is possible under the best of circumstances for the Senate to accept; after making this near-mathematical determination, don't reveal it; keep the leader's intentions carefully masked; then, exploiting the Johnson Network, start rounding up all detachable votes; when all is in readiness, strike quickly and pass the bill with a minimum of debate." Unlike his more liberal colleagues, Johnson took a pragmatic view of consensus-building: he saw it not as the lowest common denominator but as the maximum acceptable to the majority. It was a strategy perfectly attuned to the dynamics of divided government. Ideological rigidity invited defeat. "These were glory years for Johnson; well he knew it; much did he desire that others know it as well," Daniel Patrick Moynihan recalled. Others did know it, and LBJ's fellow Democrats were effusive in their praise. "I'm bursting with pride over the magnificent job you did in this Congress," Clark Clifford, a Missouri lawyer and former counsel to President Harry Truman, wrote to Johnson in 1958. "When I contemplate what would have happened up there without you it makes me believe that a beneficent God has an interest in our destiny." LBJ's status as congressional colossus was underscored by his landslide reelection in 1954, which freed him from most of the snags of Texas politics. Johnson remained a tireless booster of his state's fortunes, but with his base now secure, he shifted his emphasis toward advancing national issues and minimizing his own political liabilities. Johnson's persuasive powers diffused as the size of his audience expanded, and he knew it. He strove to improve his public speaking and press relations, and did so, becoming increasingly confident with crowds and reporters. Yet the cool mastery of television that came naturally to some of his younger colleagues, like John Kennedy, eluded LBJ. If any ambition surpassed Johnson's reach, it was this yearning to be a truly national figure. Northern liberals could not but acknowledge Johnson's legislative prowess. His Southernness, however, invited their suspicion, indifference, or hostility. In response, Johnson evoked the standard of their mutual hero Franklin D. Roosevelt and advocated a renewal of the New Deal--expanded farm subsidies and Social Security coverage, and investment in infrastructure and economically depressed areas--and pursued it effectively in Congress. In the wake of the Soviet Union's successful launch of the Sputnik satellite in late 1957, Johnson further heightened his national profile by pressing for the creation of NASA and revitalizing America's scientific and technical education. Yet a formidable obstacle--civil rights--blocked Johnson's entry into the Democratic mainstream. Johnson was a Southerner, and liberals eyed warily his voting record on this, the nation's most intractable issue. LBJ had remained aloof from Southern segregationists, shrewdly refusing to sign the Southern Manifesto (protesting the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown decision to desegregate the nation's public schools). But in twenty years of public service, Johnson had voted against every civil rights measure he faced. Now, concerned for his party, his region, progressive government, and his political career, and--not least--by the plight of America's blacks, Johnson labored in 1957 to pass a civil rights act, the first such legislation since Reconstruction. Liberals like Eleanor Roosevelt derided the act as toothless "fakery." Still, Johnson's sponsorship was clear and the political triumph was his. By the late 1950s, then, Lyndon Johnson had promoted himself ably but remained largely untested in the national arena. His supporters, still mostly Texans, believed he had transcended the limits of Senate and regional politics. Johnson had, at the very least, entered the political calculations of every contender for his party's nomination in 1960. As the 1950s drew to a close, LBJ could look back at a litany of legislative victories and a remarkably rapid ascent to the heights of political power. He was only fifty-two years old. The path to the presidency, Johnson was coming to think, might pass through his enormous oak door. But 1959 found LBJ in low spirits. His characteristic displays of gregariousness and confidence masked a deep ennui and frustration. The heady days of the mid-1950s were clearly over, and the Senate, Johnson's vocation, passion, and religion, seemed to be turning on its master. Liberal Democrats, their ranks swelled by the 1958 elections, were growing restless and resentful of his conciliatory tactics. Their praise gave way to backbiting. They accused Johnson of dictatorship and of accommodating the Republican agenda. Conservative Democrats added their voices to the discord, emboldening the once agreeable Eisenhower to strike down some of Johnson's initiatives with his veto. Across the aisle, Republicans achieved unity and discipline under the able leadership of Everett Dirksen. Johnson's renowned control of the Senate was slipping. As 1960 approached, the growing presidential ambitions of Johnson's colleagues further loosened his hold. Even lesser rivals like Senators Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania, Albert Gore of Tennessee, Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, Patrick McNamara of Michigan, Edmund Muskie of Maine, and William Proxmire of Wisconsin, smelling Democratic victory in 1960, joined a once small band of liberal critics like Tennessee's Estes Kefauver and Illinois's Paul Douglas in regular and open defiance of their party leader. LBJ's major rivals--Kennedy, Humphrey, and Missouri's Stuart Symington--refrained from personal attacks, but their increasing cries for stronger action on social issues threatened to drown out Johnson's tired mantra of "responsibility." In the Senate itself, these men posed little challenge to Johnson's primacy; it was not his job they were after. The leadership they sought was that of the national party, which they pursued with far-flung speeches and courtesy calls. Johnson, meanwhile, had done little during the 1950s to extend his web of loyalty and patronage outside Washington. The Senate, simply put, was no longer fun. In fact, it was downright mutinous. When liberal Democrats challenged their leader's right to select the party's Senate Policy Committee in January 1960, Johnson told his aide George Reedy that "everybody in the Senate could go commit a biological improbability.... Screw 'em all, I'm sick and tired of this kind of nonsense." The resolution failed, 51 to 12, but Johnson was stung, bitterly. Plagued by fears of another heart attack (he had nearly died in July 1955), Johnson began to consider a shift in career, even mumbling to intimates about retirement. More seriously, he entertained notions of running for president. Should he retire from politics? Or should he seek its biggest prize? Johnson gave profoundly mixed signals. As early as 1956, he told his friend Jim Rowe flatly that Texans and Southerners must face facts. Their power base was in the Senate, not the White House. LBJ's calculus was simple: he would not run because he could not win. He would not distract himself with quixotic power plays. Yet he followed each such decision with more plotting for the presidency, more sounding out of schemes and strategies. Each move negated the last. Indecision paralyzed LBJ. In the fall of 1958, Rowe urged him to begin a full-fledged campaign immediately; his opponents were already mobilizing. Again, Johnson seemed to long for the presidency: "He wanted it so much his tongue was hanging out," Rowe believed. But Rowe's appeals to vanity and patriotism were futile. Johnson held back, afraid of failure. By January 1959, Rowe had tired of Johnson's equivocation and reluctantly joined the Humphrey campaign. Johnson's reticence was born of more than tactical concerns. Was his personal style, he wondered, so uniquely suited to the workings of Congress that it rendered him unfit to be president? He worried aloud that his Procedure and Treatment would be ineffective in the Oval Office. "I don't want to get a bug in my mouth that I can't swallow," a falsely modest Johnson told an office visitor. "I don't have the disposition, the training or the temperament for the presidency." Memories of his heart attack weighed upon him. "There are times when my heart feels like lead. It's as if it's pushing down," he told a reporter, cupping his hand to his chest. Past political scares loomed, as well: Johnson could not forget his narrow loss of the 1941 Senate election and his narrower, disputed victory in 1948--the eighty-seven-vote margin that earned him the nickname "Landslide Lyndon." Nor did Johnson wish to forfeit his Senate seat in a failed race for the presidency. During the spring of 1959, he orchestrated a change in Texas law to permit officeholders to run simultaneously for Senate and the presidency or vice presidency. He also arranged to advance the state's Democratic primaries from July and August to May and June, giving Texas more weight in the nominating process. Both LBJ and the state legislature were protecting themselves from an unsuccessful bid. Johnson denied authorship of the bill, but it surprised no one that the senator's surrogates privately referred to it as the "LBJ Law"--not the "Ralph Yarborough Law" (for Texas's junior senator). While publicly disavowing any such intentions, LBJ began quietly spreading national campaign funds and collecting information for the approaching primaries. He scattered campaign funds in the key battleground of West Virginia, strengthening his ties with Senator Robert Byrd, already an ardent Johnson man. He quizzed his Republican friend New Hampshire Senator Styles Bridges about the crucial early primary in Bridges's state. He spoke often in the Northeast, bragging to colleagues of the "fine receptions" he received. When Georgia Senator Herman Talmadge predicted Johnson would not secure even fifty delegates in the country's five most populous states, LBJ bet him a hat he would earn more. The open secret of Johnson's candidacy complicated his political relationships. In late 1959, Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown of California appeared on NBC's Meet the Press. Toward the show's end, a reporter asked, "What about Lyndon Johnson for President?" Brown diplomatically noted his respect for the majority leader, but added that LBJ's regional baggage--segregation, his ties to the oil industry--rendered him too conservative for most Democrats. Pressed by the panel of reporters, Brown candidly deemed Johnson unable to win. As the show ended and the studio lights dimmed, an assistant ran toward Brown with a phone. Johnson waited on the line, and he was livid--not at Brown's implication that he was weak on civil rights or the captive of oil interests, but at the suggestion that he was not a winner. The next time they talked, Johnson was more conciliatory. For months he pursued the governor doggedly, switching from sweet talk to intimidation and back again. LBJ's strategy, if it could be called such, seemed muddled. But it had its own deliberate logic: "All this talk about my candidacy is destroying my leadership," he told Sam Rayburn. "I'm trying to build up a legislative record over there. The Senate already is full of presidential candidates. If I really get into this thing, they'll gang up on me and chop me up as a leader so that I'll be disqualified for the nomination." In effect, Johnson was pursuing the presidency by not pursuing it. His noncampaign encouraged his opponents to chop up one another, thus underscoring his reputation as a careful, mature leader. While they bickered among themselves, he would keep focused on his next legislative accomplishment. Throughout 1959, Johnson and his aides thought his strategy was working. Despite his disclaimers, LBJ remained a contender because, as George Reedy told him, "you are the only national Democratic leader who has a record of achievement." Johnson also fancied himself the only Democrat acceptable to Southern and Western conservatives as well as northern New Dealers. Betting on his moderate record of bipartisanship and "liberal nationalism," he hoped for a draft or deadlock. Johnson's was a convention-based, not a primary-based, strategy. It demanded patience and the most discreet of machinations. It was as much the product of cautious deliberation as of self-doubt. Either way, Johnson's inconsistency baffled his opponents. By the end of 1959, he had generated enough confusion to warrant Bobby Kennedy's political "fishing expedition" at the LBJ Ranch. At the time of his visit to the ranch, Bobby Kennedy could boast of few accomplishments to match those of the Senate majority leader. Yet Kennedy arrived in Texas that autumn not merely as the emissary or sibling of a senator but as an emerging political figure in his own right. The 1950s had marked the arrival of Robert Kennedy, and if they were not his glory years they were certainly heady ones. A young lawyer with no courtroom experience, Bobby Kennedy came into his own within Lyndon Johnson's arena, the U.S. Senate. Kennedy was quickly schooled in the vulgarity of Senate politics. In 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, a Republican, assumed control of the low-profile Committee on Government Operations. Naming himself chairman of its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, McCarthy obtained the power, rarely exercised, to scrutinize "government activities at all levels." McCarthy took a hand in hiring staff, stocking his subcommittee with loyal supporters. At the urging of Bobby's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, McCarthy named the twenty-seven-year-old RFK as assistant counsel. Joe Kennedy had sought the position of chief counsel for Bobby, but McCarthy gave the job to the more experienced Roy Cohn, a hotheaded and often tormented New York lawyer. McCarthy and Cohn quickly plunged into a vociferous, clumsy search for subversives in the State Department and the Voice of America. Whether the early stages of McCarthy's brutal crusade troubled Bobby is unclear; at the very least, he shared McCarthy's concern about Communist activities in the United States. Kennedy's nascent political ideology had been largely informed by his father, who imparted to his sons a vague economic liberalism and zeal for public service but no great interest in civil liberties. Most likely, Bobby gave the matter little thought. As assistant counsel he was occupied with the more mundane, if potentially explosive, issue of trade between America's allies and Communist China--a subject of increasingly ominous speculation in Congress. His shirtsleeves rolled up past his elbows, his tie loosened, Kennedy pored over Maritime Commission records and the Lloyd's of London shipping index with single-minded intensity. In July 1953, Doris Fleeson, an ascerbic liberal columnist, accorded Kennedy's interim report "much more credence ... than normal for anything to which Senator McCarthy's name is attached." Yet the gap between Bobby's exactitude and McCarthy's recklessness was widening. Roy Cohn's petulance had been troubling enough to RFK; now, Cohn brought a friend, an equally rash young millionaire, G. David Schine, onto the subcommittee as an unpaid "chief consultant." Schine's only credential was a thin tract on psychological warfare. Schine and Cohn outdid even McCarthy in half-cocked zealotry, running to Europe to purge U.S. Information Service libraries of "suspect" materials. Bobby blamed Cohn for McCarthy's mounting troubles but also McCarthy for encouraging him. When the senator placed Cohn in charge of the entire subcommittee staff, Kennedy protested and resigned. "McCarthy was out of his mind to go along with them [Cohn and Schine]," Bobby told his friend Ed Guthman three years later. "But he was intoxicated--driven--by all the publicity.... It had to end in disaster, but Joe couldn't see it." It was an unusually candid admission. Bobby did not admire McCarthy, did not respect his methods, but would not speak ill of him. He kept his deep ambivalence toward McCarthy closely guarded. As McCarthy sank deeper into self-made ignominy, something in McCarthy's role as the underdog continued to appeal to Bobby; something in McCarthy's complexity intrigued him. McCarthy "wanted so desperately to be liked," Bobby said later. "He was sensitive and yet insensitive. He didn't anticipate the results of what he was doing. He was very thoughtful of his friends, and yet he could be so cruel to others." Kennedy returned to the subcommittee staff in January 1954 on the opposite side, as minority counsel. He fixed his animus on Cohn and Schine, helping to make a mockery of Cohn (and, indirectly, McCarthy) in public hearings on a particularly egregious case of Red-baiting. During the Army-McCarthy hearings, from April to June 1954, Kennedy distanced himself further from the self-destructing senator. Sitting behind the minority members, quietly scribbling notes for their use, Bobby was a discreet participant at the hearings. Yet he had his moment. Bobby fed a steady stream of questions to Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington as Jackson, in some eleventh-hour political posturing, interrogated McCarthy on Schine's qualifications. Kennedy's cutting questions laid bare the obvious absurdity of the "Schine Plan" of psychological warfare and brought forth waves of laughter from the crowd. Committee members erupted in fits of giggles. Sitting by his patron, Cohn seethed. His attempt at rebuttal cut short by the chairman's gavel, Cohn headed straight for Kennedy. "Tell Jackson we're going to get him on Monday," he snapped, thrusting a file folder like a weapon into Kennedy's face. "We've got letters he wrote to the White House on behalf of two known Communists." "You tell him yourself," said Bobby curtly. His blue eyes turned dead cold in what friends later called "the look." "Don't threaten me. You've got a----nerve threatening me." "Do you want to fight right here?" Cohn, hysterical, began to swing at Kennedy, but bystanders stepped in before punches were thrown. Kennedy walked away wearing a taut grin of contempt, a brief moment of relish at Cohn's undoing. By 1955, McCarthy, too, had self-destructed. In 1956, Kennedy, after a disappointing but educational stint in Adlai Stevenson's second presidential campaign, moved on to a more fruitful field of inquiry: labor racketeering. Burgeoning union coffers and pension funds presented easy takings to shady union leaders and mobsters. A Senate investigation earlier that year offered a menacing glimpse of the creeping corruption, intimidation, and brutality infecting American labor. In January 1957, the Senate created the Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field--the Rackets Committee, as it became known--and named John McClellan of Arkansas as chairman. Even Kennedy, eagerly taking the position as chief counsel over his father's vehement objections (a racketeering probe being, at best, an inauspicious beginning to John Kennedy's courting of labor support for 1960), could not have foreseen the growing scope and significance of the investigation. What began tentatively as an inquiry into embezzlement became by 1959 one of the most sweeping and productive investigations in the Senate's history. The counsel's office, the nerve center of the probe, had the unkempt air of a secondhand bookshop. Loose piles of documents cluttered the floor. Adding to the mess were the thousands of letters that flooded in weekly. Often anonymous, usually written in haste and fear, these letters testified to rigged union elections and stolen pensions, to beatings and intimidation, even to acid-throwings and murder. Kennedy was drawn in quickly, completely. Guthman, one of his assistants, noticed how instinctively Kennedy identified with the union rank and file, cheated by criminals and betrayed by their own leaders. But their distress symptomized a larger disease: from the beginning, as Guthman remembered, Bobby was "more concerned with what corruption, dishonesty and arbitrary use of power were doing to the democratic process and individual morality than he was with the specifics of the crimes that were being uncovered." Yet Bobby's energy and wry levity broke the solemn weight of the committee's task. His staff appreciated his spirit. Young and dedicated--and numbering more than a hundred by 1958--they worked feverishly to match their tireless principal. Kennedy set an "unbelievable pace," remembered a staff member. One night during the investigation of Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, Kennedy and his assistant Pierre Salinger left their Senate office at 1:00 A.M. Driving by the Teamsters' grand marble headquarters, they noticed the yellow glimmer of Hoffa's office lights. Kennedy turned the car around. "If he's still at work, we ought to be," he said, and they worked for two more hours. (After hearing this story, Hoffa took a special glee in leaving his office lights burning long after leaving for a restful night's sleep.) Kennedy forged many of his closest bonds--with men like Salinger, Guthman, John Seigenthaler, and Kenneth O'Donnell--in this crucible. "I've seen a lot of counsels here," reflected LaVern Duffy after twenty-five years on the Government Operations Committee. "There was no one like him. He had an uncanny ability to get people to do more than they thought they could do. He didn't do this by bringing pressure on them. It was because they wanted to please him. He gave people a sense of personal interest in themselves, their work, their families. This was his secret. He never got mad except when someone lied to him. He couldn't stand that." When Teamsters president Dave Beck lied to him and the Rackets Committee, Kennedy couldn't stand that, either. Beck, suspected of larceny and misuse of union funds, appeared before the committee in March 1957. He was smug with self-assurance. Barry Goldwater and other Republican senators offered friendly queries, dispatched by Beck with statesmanlike cool. As the first day ended, Bobby Kennedy leaned forward, barking out a staccato of detail, quickly overwhelming Beck. Unlike the McCarthy hearings, these were not "fishing expeditions"; Kennedy rarely asked a question whose answer he did not already know, and it showed. This was the public's first introduction to the Kennedy manner: rapid, relentless, pointed questioning. Beck pled the Fifth Amendment sixty-five times before the hearings ended. A Chicago Daily News reporter praised Kennedy for just "about the finest job I've ever seen on Capitol Hill. If ever Providential justice was ladled out in the Caucus room, you did it that day." Beck's unraveling at Kennedy's hands set the Teamsters president on the path to prison. The swift, crushing collapse of one of labor's most powerful leaders shot the Rackets Committee--and its thirty-one-year-old counsel--into national prominence and significance. The hearings were a test and a competition of sorts for Robert Kennedy. As he himself admitted, "My biggest problem as counsel is to keep my temper.... To see people sit in front of us and lie and evade makes me boil inside. But you can't lose your temper--if you do, the witness has gotten the best of you." By his own standards, Kennedy was succeeding. He felt fulfilled and relevant, engaged in a cause of moral and political consequence. [Chapter One continues]
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Jeff Shesol is the author of Supreme Power:Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court and Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud That Defined a Decade. He was a speechwriter in the Clinton administration and lives in Washington, DC.
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