James Neff’s engrossing “Vendetta,” the history of the blood feud between Robert Kennedy and Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, is as riveting as any courtroom thriller. Neff reads Monday, July 13, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

Share story

“Vendetta: Bobby Kennedy versus Jimmy Hoffa”

by James Neff

Little, Brown, 377 pp., $28

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, plunged America, and much of the world, into deep mourning for the fallen president. But for Jimmy Hoffa, then president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of the most powerful unions in America, it was cause for celebration. Hearing the news, he stepped up on his chair in a crowded restaurant and began to cheer. He commented to reporters: “Bobby Kennedy is just another lawyer now.”

The hostility was mutual. Bobby Kennedy spent years investigating Hoffa, first as chief counsel to the Senate Rackets Committee and later as attorney general, intent on convicting the corrupt union leader. Hoffa, armed with nearly unlimited Teamster funds and represented by famed lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, was no easy target.

In “Vendetta: Bobby Kennedy versus Jimmy Hoffa,” James Neff brings to life the clash between two of the most powerful men of the early 1960s. Neff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigations editor for The Seattle Times, brilliantly weaves this fascinating narrative with newly released material. And what a story: illegal wire taps, jury tampering, corrupt union thugs skimming pension funds, and an ambitious young attorney general intent on getting the bad guy. The result is as riveting as any courtroom thriller, except this is real.

Author appearance

James Neff

The author of “Vendetta” will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, July 13, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. Free (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com.)

Kennedy and Hoffa could not have been less alike. Hoffa was the son of a coal miner and dropped out of high school at 14 to work in a grocery store to help support his family. Kennedy’s background was, of course, just a little different. Born into wealth and privilege, he only had to worry about how to step out of the shadow of his brilliant and charismatic older brother John.

Kennedy began investigating the Teamsters as counsel to the Senate Rackets Committee. Dave Beck, the Seattle-based president of the Teamsters, famously invoked the Fifth Amendment 117 times during Kennedy’s questioning. Beck declined to seek re-election in 1957, at which point Hoffa took his place. Kennedy’s subsequent focus on Hoffa resulted in serial referrals for criminal prosecution.

But Kennedy’s enthusiasm outran his legal skills and many of his referrals were useless, either because they didn’t actually prove illegal conduct or because Kennedy’s own cross-examinations were so poorly constructed that they left little grounds for prosecution.

When Kennedy became the campaign manager for his brother John’s 1960 presidential campaign, Hoffa used Teamsters funds to undermine the effort. He even hired call girls to try to seduce either Kennedy and then “gather evidence of the assignation with hidden recorders or cameras.” The effort failed, but not for want of trying.

Of course, John Kennedy was elected president in 1960 and controversially appointed Bobby Kennedy as his attorney general. Kennedy’s “Get Hoffa” squad, which devoted enormous resources to try — unsuccessfully — to convict Hoffa, grew more frustrated with every acquittal.

In early 1964, Hoffa was finally convicted of jury tampering and sentenced to eight years in prison. It was cold comfort to a shellshocked Bobby Kennedy, still mourning his brother’s death. Only six weeks later, Hoffa was convicted of defrauding a Teamster-managed pension fund. Hoffa entered prison in early 1967 defiantly, hoping to overturn his convictions. He failed.

But Hoffa was pardoned by President Nixon in 1971 and promptly embarked on an effort to regain control of the Teamsters. He disappeared on July 30, 1975, outside of a restaurant in Detroit. His body has never been found.

Bobby Kennedy was himself shot down shortly after winning the California Democratic primary on June 5, 1968, as he made his way through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Kennedy’s single-minded pursuit of Hoffa was, no doubt, overzealous and likely overstepped legal bounds. But Hoffa was hardly an innocent victim of an unfair “vendetta”: He richly deserved it. Neff’s masterful study of this intensely personal conflict is as engrossing as it is irresistible.