Vendetta, the new book by Seattle Times writer James Neff, begins on the day that many have characterized as the moment when America lost its innocence. Attorney General Robert Kennedy has just enjoyed a picnic lunch on an unseasonably warm November day in Washington DC. Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa is finishing a meal in a Miami restaurant. Both men are approached with news: President John F. Kennedy has been shot; he’s likely either dead or is about to die.
Kennedy reacts about the way you’d expect a man to when confronted with the murder of his beloved older brother, his boss, and his president: he’s speechless, stricken. Meanwhile, in Miami, Hoffa stands and cheers JFK’s death, adding, “I hope the worms eat out his eyes.” In a modern movie, this scene would be too much — who would possibly cheer the death of a popular young president in public? — but you have to remember that this was a very different America.
The truth is, America didn’t lose its innocence on the day JFK was assassinated. No nation is innocent. What happened was one America died and another one was born. This sounds dramatic, but it’s not; it happens all the time. I’ve lived through at least four American deaths and rebirths in my lifetime — the Berlin Wall falling, 9/11, the election of Obama, the Ferguson riots. You could successfully argue a dozen more such events within those same decades. What changes in those moments is the way we view ourselves and our place in the world. A previous American concept suddenly becomes alien to us, and a new course of action opens up with an imposing sense of inevitability.
In the time before JFK’s assassination, America pictured itself as the kind of place where a sufficiently large personality could accomplish anything. JFK himself was a perfect example. He was best described by his opposing truths, the public and private sides — a war hero and a philanderer, a vigorous young touch football player who was wracked at all times by indescribable pain, a principled optimist who began the long process of involving the United States in what would become the Vietnam War.
Both Robert Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa, too, were examples of the huge personalities cultivated in America between the end of World War II and the day JFK was shot. Kennedy was young and idealistic and dogged, but he also chose his crusades carefully and was prone to long periods of melancholy. Hoffa claimed to fight tirelessly for the working man at the same time that he worked in an ostentatious palace of an office staffed by former beauty queens, paid for by the dues of those working men. Neither seemed to fully believe that the law applied to them. And they hated each others’ guts.
In Vendetta, Neff documents Kennedy’s many attempts to drum Hoffa out of the union and into jail. it’s a fascinating story, a cat-and-mouse legal thriller starring two men who couldn’t stand each other from the start. Kennedy’s pursuit of Hoffa begins in the least-exciting way possible — he’s tipped to Hoffa’s existence by a reporter, and then he begins digging in. Early on, the two men held a meeting. Hoffa hated RFK immediately for giving him “a wimpy handshake,” saying later: “I can tell how he shakes hands what kind of fellow I got. I thought, ‘Here’s a fella thinks he’s doing me a favor by talking to me.’” He loathed Kennedy’s money and aristocratic bearing. Kennedy, for his part, hated Hoffa’s showmanship, and the way he openly reveled in his power:
Opened in 1955 at a cost of $5 million, Teamsters headquarters was the nation’s grandest union hall, with a massive marble-finished lobby, bronze-framed floor-to-ceiling picture windows, an auditorium that seated 474 people, and a dining room serving cuisine overseen by a French chef…recruited from Seattle’s Olympic Hotel. Hoffa, a fitness buff, added his own touch: a $50,000 gymnasium with a steam room, weights, and a Swedish masseur.
In addition, Hoffa had “a nine-foot mahogany desk” and all the amenities, including “a hidden built-in bar that popped up with the touch of a button.” It’s practically a super-villain’s hideout.
With all the ideals involved — labor vs. elected official, law vs. corruption, man vs. machine — it’s easy to forget that Kennedy and Hoffa just flat-out disliked each other on a personal level. In many ways, they represented the opposing sides of one of America’s longest-running feuds: new money vs. old. Kennedy’s father was fabulously wealthy whereas Hoffa had to claw his way up from poverty. Hoffa saw Kennedy as a spoiled brat, and Kennedy saw Hoffa as someone who couldn’t help but abuse his newfound power. It’s one of those rivalries that feels completely pure, the kind of hate that had to be fueled in part by each man recognizing some especially loathsome part of himself in the other.
Neff’s reportage is impressive; he digs into the history on a granular level, often tracking Kennedy and Hoffa down to the minute, and his writing is propulsive enough to make even the driest courtroom passages flow like a thriller. While it’s true that there’s no climactic set piece — the problem with a heavily researched non-fiction book like this one is that if your story ends with an anticlimax, you’ve got to just run with the anticlimax — Neff manages to draw the narrative to a conclusion anyway.
A Seymour Hersh blurb on the back of Vendetta warns that “This is not a book about a good Bobby versus a bad Hoffa,” but in all honesty, Hoffa comes away from the book looking worse than Kennedy. Sure, Kennedy might drive his quest for justice directly over the cliffs of obsession, but Hoffa hits his employees and does a victory lap over a president’s assassination. At some level, every reader is subconsciously looking for a good guy to root for and a bad guy to hiss at, and Vendetta fills those roles easily.
Whether Neff intends it or not, the protagonist of Vendetta is Bobby Kennedy. He’s an imperfect figure — melancholic, obsessed, sarcastic, and doomed— but he’s the closest thing to a hero you’ll find in this particular story. The fact that we know how his story ends only makes things worse. Kennedy’s death is well-documented; Hoffa’s death remains a mystery. When their personalities are at their largest in Vendetta, the two seem more myth than mortals, a pair of outsized personalities smashing into each other. In the end, though, they’re just as frail as anyone. Those giant figures marching off to war are constructed from the same tainted meat as you or I.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant