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.