From David Talbot’s thrilling account of the Kennedy brothers political careers in his book, Brothers. David Talbot is a journalist and founder of Salon.com
Talbot’s book begins by providing a portrait of the Kennedy brothers: Bobby, the ever-watchful family guard-dog, ready to fight for America’s soul from the Senate or the White House, and Jack, the charming candidate and, later on, aberrant President, for whom Bobby would do anything to protect. The two brothers were born into a wealthy Irish-American family. Their father, the infamous Joe Sr., was a morally precarious businessman and their mother, Rose, a devout Catholic homemaker.
As a member of the McClellan Committee in 1956-57, Robert Kennedy made a number of powerful enemies. He dragged notorious mobsters, crooked businessman and other seedy characters from the American underbelly into the bright lights of the US Senate and questioned them relentlessly. He was dogged and fearless in his quest to bring these men to justice. The sparring between Kennedy and prominent thugs, like Jimmy Hoffa, brought the young Senator national recognition. It was the perfect political debut for Kennedy, who, unlike his older brothers had missed the chance to prove himself by fighting in WWII. The eldest Kennedy brother, Joe Jr. died in combat while the other, John, had earned the title of war hero after his ship wrecked in the Pacific.
The rackets investigation was Bobby’s time to shine. But not all of the Kennedy’s were pleased by his ambitious display. Joe Kennedy Sr. feared for his son’s safety. Some of the same men Bobby was ruthlessly haranguing in the Senate had helped make Joe Sr. a rich man through bootlegging and liquor distribution. Still, Bobby’s crime busting agenda continued into his time as Attorney General, where “the number of indicted gangsters shot up from 121 in 1961 to 615 in 1963.”
Hatred for the Kennedy brothers sprang from the world of organized crime with what Talbot describes as a “lethal fury.” Mafia bosses like Carlos Marcello and Santo Trafficante, who both had close financial ties to Jimmy Hoffa—the Union leader who had turned the Teamsters’ pension fund into a piggy bank for the mob, and was therefore a constant target in Bobby’s war on crime) made no secret of his wish to kill both Robert and John Kennedy.
If the mafia was involved in the assassination of JFK, as Talbot subtly presents as a possibility early on in the book, it would give us much insight into Bobby’s reaction to his brother death—one of immense guilt and sorrow. He had been the one to wake the sleeping beast of underground crime. Until he had done so, mobsters had been left largely to their own devises, with the FBI turning a blind eye under the Hoover’s leadership.
But the mafia is not the only elusive organization implicated in Brothers. As the narrative progresses, we learn of the peculiar relationship between the CIA and the Cuban Exiles.
Anti-Castro Cuban exile groups like the Cuban Student Directorate (DRE)—of which Lee Harvey Oswald was a member for a time—received funding from the CIA for raids against Cuba. They also operated in cities inundated with organized crime, like Miami and New Orleans.
Another important point of contention is the now legendary distrust and resentment felt between the Kennedy White House and almost every other powerful government organization: FBI, CIA and the Pentagon are examples. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco JFK parted ways with the Pentagon and CIA ideologically, preferring a peaceful solution to the Cold War standoff and Cuba. While as Attorney General, Bobby found it impossible to work with Hoover, who kept in his secret files as much smut as he could find on the Kennedy family.
Perhaps most alarmingly, Talbot unveils the special partnership between the CIA and prominent members of the Mafia; who, working together, planned and carried out covert anti-Castro missions.
These three organizations come to be a trifecta of powerful anti-Kennedy sentiment within the narrative of the book. Together, they could have done anything—perhaps even assassinate the President of the United States and cover it up so that one seemingly loony man was implicated. But in the last few chapters, when Talbot addresses the various investigations into the assassination, we are let down. Not just with the lazy, hastily thrown-together Warren Report, but also with the investigations thereafter.
Key witnesses and suspects with mafia ties die of mysterious causes just days, or hours, before they are to be taken in for questioning. Investigators are shamed and discredited by popular media outlets with strict loyalties to government organizations like the CIA. Intelligence members, like David Atlee Philips, perjure themselves and storm out of Assassinations Committees when they are confronted—appearing to consider themselves above the law, above justice. And hoards of documents are kept hidden in files deep within the CIA, away from those who would bring them to the public’s attention. The truth, it would appear, is out of reach. For now.
After his brother’s death, Bobby Kennedy consoled himself through literature and poetry. One book in particular he read and re-read. It was The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton, given to him by Jackie, which tells of the brief glory of Athens—it’s time as a thriving, rich democracy, before it succumbed to corruptions of government. Talbot refers to this book a number of times in reference to Bobby and his character. This line was of particular importance to RFK:
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls, drop by drop, upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.