Bobby and J.Edgar: The Relationship That Transformed America. Burton Hersch. Simon and Schuster. 2007.
For many on the Left, the relationship between Robert Kennedy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover during the John F. Kennedy administration is the ultimate good versus evil parable. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has characterized it as "a clash between a young idealist and a reactionary old man."
Liberals like this legend, for it highlights Hoover's anticommunism and Kennedy new brand of progressivism. The reality, as historian Burton Hersch shows, was much more complicated. Contrary to the notion that Kennedy and Hoover were polar opposites, both men had more similarities than differences. It is only that their priorities differed.
For one thing, both men were obsessive about their work. That was especially the case when it came to their political enemies. Hoover was consumed with targeting domestic communism and staying in power. RFK's central concerns included destroying Fidel Castro, the Mafia and, above all, protecting his brother from people like Hoover. Like other politicians, Hoover had a thick file on JFK's peccadilloes. In the pages of this book, one gets the sense that RFK's time was taken up as much with keeping the file from growing -- including deporting a mistress of JFK's, IIyla Jovanovich, who may have had ties to East German intelligence -- as with the duties of his office as Attorney General.
Both men also had their moments of guilt. Hoover's happened when he felt even his beloved FBI overstepped the bounds of civil liberties. "We cannot become like the Soviet Union," he said to an aid when he learned of the Kennedy brothers' wiretapping political opponents such as Nixon aid Murray Choitner. The guilt that tormented RFK from 1963 on was that his zeal to assassinate Fidel Castro, using elements of the CIA tied to the Mafia, may have gotten his brother killed. "Did one of your guys do it?" RFK phoned the CIA immediately upon hearing the news of his brother's death in Dallas. Horrified by what he may have unleashed on his brother, RFK turned 180 degrees from being an anti-communist to considering that Fidel Castro partisans such as Che Guevara may have been "authentic revolutionaries."
Hersch succeeds in showing the fallacy of the Camelot myth, in which a dovish and civil-rights minded president attempted to push Cold War and segregationist America toward détente and racial harmony. He also debunks the popular caricature of Hoover as a cross-dressing fascist. In reality, the Kennedys and Hoover hardly clashed on foreign policy; both viewed Castro as a threat and both were sturdily anticommunist.
There were differences, to be sure. On matters of civil rights, RFK emerges in this book as the more passionate. He saw the plight of blacks as something needing immediate relief, while Hoover feared that the civil-rights struggle would plunge America into a terrible revolution. RFK wanted racial equality without losing the South for the Democrats. J. Edgar Hoover wanted the status quo, for he saw the civil rights movement as a communist plot.
The reader will benefit from Hersch's years of investigating the Kennedy clan. All the legends, good and bad, about the clan are dissected here. The facts that remain show a power-hungry group whose ideology was more pragmatic than liberal. Hersch has done his homework on tracking down what is true and untrue about the death of Marilyn Monroe, Kennedy's real views on overthrowing Castro, and even the death of JFK.
However, Hersch exaggerates how the relationship between RFK and Hoover transformed America. RFK's main accomplishments were accelerating the assassination plots against Castro. Indeed, he was so obsessed with this that even CIA agents viewed him with some alarm. Hoover's FBI meanwhile did little to protect civil rights' workers in the South, and RFK was too distraught over his brother's death to play any meaningful role in the movement post 1964. It took JFK's successor -- and bitter foe of RFK -- Lyndon Johnson to ram a civil rights' bill through Congress and step up the war in Vietnam.
Rather than transforming Cold War America, the relationship between RFK and J. Edgar Hoover merely reflected its dark side. For both these men, the "Camelot" years were an era of covert plots, dirt digging and an attendant search for plausible deniability. For those still in thrall to the myth that the Kennedy years were about progressive change, Bobby and J. Edgar is essential reading.