Robert Kennedy wrote a number of books. Lately I have been reading what is perhaps his best known book, The Enemy Within [Harper & Brothers, New York, 1960]. I am reading it as part of my study of the influence of organized crime on business, society and politics (and vice-versa). See, for instance, Uncle Raymond Clinton, Or Is Hillary Still Mobbed Up? [May 25, 2015]
It is possible that Robert titled The Enemy Within more aptly than he knew. Enemy mainly chronicles Kennedy's investigations of Hoffa and the Teamsters Union and associates. It paints a pretty grim picture of how bad things can get when a union is corrupted or mobbed up. But it also shows how glaringly narrow-visioned Robert Kennedy was, and raises the question of whether, at the time it was written, Robert Kennedy knew where the Kennedy family wealth came from.
Today it is well known that Joseph Kennedy, Robert's father, was an important organized criminal, in addition to being an important legitimate business and political figure. In popular culture you can see that illustrated in the later seasons of the TV series Boardwalk Empire, for instance.
But in the 1950's Robert (born in 1925) certainly acted as if he was ignorant of where the money came from that made for a luxurious childhood, a Harvard education, law school, a career in the Justice Department, and working at a high level for Congress at an early age.
As I waded through this often tedious book about dead crooks and the men who investigated them, I came upon this delightful passage:
Fortunately, our work was not without its lighter moments. There is an office building on Fourteenth Street in New York City whose tenants include a number of labor unions. Knowing that some of these unions were under investigation, and suspecting that perhaps the building was owned by a racketeer or perhaps even by "The Mob," Walter May, Paul Tierney, and Bellino checked the records. They were shocked to learn who owned the building.Of course the investigation stopped there. Had some other reputed mob family owned the building, Robert would have kept digging like a terrier.
It was my family.
Many researchers have alleged that Robert did indeed know his dad had been a mobster, at least in the distant past, based on what Robert (and his brother John, then a Senator and also on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations) avoided investigating.
But something else is obvious in the book. Kennedy crucified the Teamsters and James Hoffa. It helped turn the nation against unions in general. Republican politicians, Hollywood and the business propaganda machine went on a decades-long spree telling Americans that all unions are corrupt, that every member is a Union Thug.
But on page after page, where does most of the corruption come from? From the businesses that employ teamsters. Hoffa & crew misuse union dues, to be sure. But the extra money is coming from business owners who find it is good business to pay Hoffa, say, $100,000 in cash to get results that save $1 million on the payroll end.
Democratic unions, run honestly by elected officials responsible to their members, has always been a goal to almost all union members. Corrupting those unions has been a goal of employers and organized crime, which are often the same thing.
There are some reasonably honest businesses too, perhaps a majority. But a careful examination of the record shows that the interface between organized crime and profit-taking is a loose one. In addition to the Joe Kennedy types who move money back and forth gracefully between criminal enterprises (like importing whiskey during Prohibition), stock market scams, and legitimate businesses, there are the many CEOs and stockholders who don't mind making a little extra money by dumping toxic wastes, failing to invest in worker safety, or selling dangerous and shoddy products to consumers.
Most people are complex, and the more successful they are, the more complex they have to be. Joe Kennedy amassed a vast fortune at other people's expense, but it is hard to criticize the job he did helping to set up the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission). If it weren't so tedious, that story would make a good "It takes a Thief" type TV series.
Maybe, if elected President, Robert Kennedy would have ended the Vietnam War his brother started. Maybe he would have led America to Camelot. Maybe he would have expiated the sins of his father. On the other hand, his regime might have been the most corrupt and hypocritical in U.S. history. We'll never know.