Veteran Kennedy chronicler Hersh (The Shadow President, 1997, etc.) examines the poisonous dynamic between Attorney General and FBI director.
Throughout his three-year tenure as AG, President Kennedy’s brother Robert was often called the second most powerful man in the government. That can’t have sat well with Hoover, who had spent decades shaping the FBI into his kingdom within the Justice Department. (Kenneth Ackerman colorfully charts Hoover’s early career in Young J. Edgar, simultaneously released by the same publisher.) Protective of his prerogatives, offended by the brothers’ private lives and their shabby treatment of him, Hoover employed his considerable skills as a bureaucratic knife fighter, making regular use of FBI files to hamstring the Kennedys and shape the law-enforcement agenda to his own crusty notions. Precisely how he pulled this off is elaborated here in exhaustive detail. Ackerman weaves together a lurid history that shows the FBI, organized crime and the Kennedy family shockingly intertwined. Also caught in the mesh was a legion of famous names, from Martin Luther King, Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford to Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy and Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford, none of whom appear to advantage. Behind it all—mistresses, illegal wire taps, shady political and business deals, payoffs, bribes and cover-ups—looms the imposing, almost diabolical figure of Joseph P. Kennedy, whose character flaws and dodgy career both enabled and crippled his sons. Some readers may recoil at Hersh’s relentlessly dark inferences and ominous conclusions. (On the president’s assassination, for example, he’s much closer to Oliver Stone than to Gerald Posner.) Still, it’s hard to dispute his meticulously sourced exposure of wide-ranging corruption, mostly hidden at the time from a naïve public that saw nothing particularly wrong with the president’s brother serving as the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer or with an FBI director seemingly ensconced for life.
The rot beneath Camelot’s glittering surface is now an old story, but few books have so thoroughly examined the decay.