"Passionate," "intense," "tough," and above all, "ruthless." These were some of the words used to describe Robert Kennedy.
Kennedy's tough-guy reputation emerged from a career of battles. He waged moral crusades against dangers including foreign enemies (communism, Fidel Castro, the U.S.S.R.); domestic adversaries (corrupt unions, the Mafia); specific people (Jimmy Hoffa, "Big Steel" bosses); and abstract concepts (racism, poverty). One of his biggest enemies, Lyndon Johnson, was technically on his side, a fellow Democrat.
"Robert Kennedy, particularly early in his career, tended to see things in blacks and whites," says historian Jeff Shesol. "You were either in his favor or you were entirely out of his favor."
Learn about Robert Kennedy's conflicts with four adversaries.
In the 1950s, Robert Kennedy, like most Americans, despised communism. At the time, the Soviet Union was "Enemy #1." But RFK honed his anti-communism working side-by-side with the nation's leading red-baiter, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.
A Kennedy family friend, McCarthy vacationed with the clan on Cape Cod, and even dated two kennedy sister, Pat and Jean. When Bobby needed a job in 1952, after working on his brother Jack's successful Senate campaign, his father Joe Kennedy picked up the phone. By January, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had a new lawyer.
He would last barely six months, done in by a rivalry with McCarthy's chief deputy, Roy Cohn, as well as disenchantment with their overzealous style. But the months with McCarthy would follow Kennedy for the rest of his life, helping define the "Bad Bobby" that many liberals could never quite forget.
Though Kennedy had long since moved on, he found McCarthy's death in 1957 "very upsetting." In historian Ronald Steel's words, "for him the errant senator was a kindred spirit -- one engaged, as he was himself, in the struggle against evil."
In this excerpt from the hearing transcripts, Robert Kennedy questions Markus Kalasz, a Hungarian-born steelworker from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, about his ties to the Communist Party:
Markus Kalasz: He and another fellow, and I don't remember his name, they came to the house just at the time when we eat, before I would go to the afternoon shift work, and they asked me to join the party, and I said, "'Boys, nothing doing. I am registered Democrat, and I tell you this,"' and I point my finger to them, and I said, "A man cannot be a Jew and a Catholic, and a man cannot be a Democrat and a Communist. It is impossible."
Robert F. Kennedy: When were you telling him this?
Kalasz: That day, and they coax me, and coax me.
Kennedy: When was this?
Kalasz: They picked me up in his car, and took me down to the gate where I was going to work.
Kennedy: When was this?
Kalasz: They coaxed me to get the paper.
Kennedy: Just answer me. When was that when you did point your finger that you can remember, when you pointed your finger at them?
Kalasz: I don't know the date.
Kennedy: If you can remember when you pointed your finger at them, Mr. Kalasz, you ought to remember about what year this was, and was it a month ago, or was it ten years ago?
Kalasz: Oh no, that was in about those years you mentioned over there, that was before we got the contract.
Senator Potter: Would it be about 1937?
Kalasz: No, that was later, pretty close to 1940, and after 1940, after we got the first contract, and they came many times.
Kennedy: You can remember pointing your finger at them but you can't remember what year it was?
Kalasz: I am too doggone absentminded on that.
Kennedy: Why can you remember that you pointed your finger at them?
Excerpt from Executive Sessions of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations (McCarthy Hearings 1953-54). Volume 5. U.S. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C., 2003.
In April 1961, Cuba went from a concern to a major problem for the Kennedy administration. The Cuban Communist regime's continued presence -- and growing dependence on the Soviet Union -- made the island, just 90 miles off the Florida coast, a clear threat to U.S. security. Then the embarrassing failure of the Bay of Pigs invassion made it a personal matter between the Kennedys and Fidel Castro.
No one took it more personally than Bobby. "After the Bay of Pigs, John Kennedy becomes increasingly skeptical about how to deal with Castro," says historian Robert Dallek. "Bobby Kennedy is, in essence, the point man for trying to find a way to topple Castro."
To distance his brother from the mess and yet address the problem aggressively, Robert Kennedy personally oversaw the covert Operation Mongoose. Its goal was to harass, overthrow, and possibly kill the Cuban dictator.
Sam Halpern was the executive officer of Task Force W, the Central Intelilgence Agency team charged with carrying out Operation Mongoose. He describes working on the project:
[Robert Kennedy] was always pushing. No matter what you came up with, no matter what we thought up, wasn't good enough... We went berserk, honestly, trying to satisfy this guy's dreams of what an intelligence service is supposed to do. And we couldn't satisfy him, ever...
We did... propaganda, of one type or another. We tried some bits and pieces of sabotage... It didn't mean a damn thing. Didn't bother [Castro], it caused us a lot of headaches, a lot of trouble and a lot of money...
We were involved in things like... possibly making [Castro] sick... We even had one guy come in with an idea of making his beard fall out. And I looked at the guy, I sent him out of my office, I said go away. But you know, when you get pressure from the White House to do something... everybody comes up with all the crazy ideas in the world...
Bobby Kennedy wanted things blown up. So we blew things up...
[We] were working jointly [with the U.S. military], to try to... infiltrate the Cuban military, to get some military officers to, in effect, have a coup or a revolt or something. All kinds of things were tried. All kinds.
— Sam Halpern, former CIA executive officer
Robert Kennedy's work hunting communists revealed a talent for such crusades. In 1957, Kennedy found a new target: corrupt trade unions.
As chief counsel for a Senate subcommittee investigating these "rackets," Kennedy went after the biggest fish possible, the 1.3-million-member Teamsters Union. It dominated the nation's transportation industry. Kennedy's investigations convinced him that the Teamsters' president, Jimmy Hoffa, had worked with mobsters, extorted money from employers, and raided Teamster pension funds.
Hoffa's pugnacious testimony before the McClellan Rackets Committee made for great theater. Kennedy mocked Hoffa and interrogated him relentlessly. Hoffa gave evasive answers and feigned memory loss. Sometimes, the two men would lock eyes and stare at each other for minutes at a time, ending only when Hoffa winked. "I used to love to bug the little bastard," Hoffa recalled.
"It was just a match of two absolutes," comments historian Ronald Steel. "Bobby Kennedy saw Hoffa as absolute evil. And so he could elevate this struggle against Hoffa into some kind of titanic moral issue, which is why he became so dedicated to it."
Jimmy Hoffa's testimony before the Senate Rackets Committee included evasive exchanges like this one:
Robert F. Kennedy: Did you say, "That S.O.B., I'll break his back"?
Jimmy Hoffa: Who?
Hoffa: Say it to who?
Kennedy: To anyone?
Hoffa: Figure of speech... I don't even know what I was talking about and I don't know what you're talking about.
Kennedy: Uh... Mr. Hoffa, all I'm trying to find out, I'll tell you what I'm talking about. I'm trying to find out whose back you were going to break.
Hoffa: Figure of speech... figure of speech.
— Excerpt from the McClellan Committee Hearings, 1957. Courtesy NBC News Archives.
Lyndon B. Johnson
Early in the Kennedy administration, a group gathered in the White House kitchen for a late-night meal of scrambled eggs. The mood was light until Vice President Lyndon Johnson cornered the attorney general. "Bobby, you do not like me," he complained. "Your brother likes me. Your sister-in-law likes me. Your daddy likes me. But you don't like me. Now, why? Why don't you like me?"
Johnson was right, of course -- and the feeling was mutual. Ever since an incident at the 1960 Democratic Convention, the two men had been at odds. The vice president was never part of the Kennedy inner circle, and he knew that the Kennedys made fun of him behind his back.
"[Johnson] was, in many ways, the antithesis of John Kennedy", explains historian Ronald Steel. "Ungainly rather than handsome, provincial rather than cosmopolitan, shrewd rather than sophisticated, emotional rather than detached."
RFK's dislike of Johnson worsened in the wake of John Kennedy's assassination. Though President Johnson enshrined JFK's legacy through legislation, RFK would always view him as an unworthy usurper. "Our president was a gentleman and a human being... this man is not," Bobby said in a 1964 interview, with shocking candor. "He's mean, bitter, vicious -- an animal in many ways."
Johnson could do little but fume at such treatment from the man he privately referred to as "that little runt." With public sympathy for the Kennedy family still running high, any shoddy treatment of a grieving brother would surely backfire, and harm Johnson's claim to the slain president's legacy.
In early 1964, President Johnson confronted Robert Kennedy about John Corbin, a Kennedy aide and member of the Democratic National Committee. Corbin was organizing a New Hampshire write-in campaign for Robert Kennedy as vice president in 1964.
Johnson's message was simple: he wanted Corbin out of New Hampshire and off the national committee. "He was loyal to President Kennedy; he'll be loyal to you," Johnson barked. "Get him out of there. Do you understand? I want you to get rid of him."
"I don't want to have this kind of conversation with you," Bobby replied. He wasn't sure Corbin actually was in New Hampshire, though he didn't doubt it. He suggested gamely that Johnson find out himself, betraying a trace of amusement at Johnson's rage. Paul's not my responsibility, Bobby said. "He was appointed by President Kennedy, who thought he was good."
This was stretching the truth, but to Johnson it was beside the point. "Do it," he demanded. "President Kennedy isn't president anymore. I am."
In its naked bitterness, Johnson's comment was shocking. Never had he been so openly brutal to Robert Kennedy, who struggled to maintain his dignity: "I know you're president," he said flatly, "and don't you ever talk to me like that again." He stormed out of the White House in a cold rage.
— Excerpt from Jeff Shesol, Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1997.