Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Career of J. Edgar Hoover

The Kennedys

Hoover & Kennedys (AP/WWP)
Hoover & Kennedys (AP/WWP)

The 1960 election ushered in some unpleasant changes for Mr. Hoover. His favorite hobby horse, the Communist menace, was no longer a credible domestic threat, mostly because it had become such an obvious and focused international threat to the United States. And, while Hoover had worked for many administrations, the Kennedy administration was quite different than the others.

John Kennedy was twenty-two years younger than Hoover. Worse, Robert Kennedy, the new attorney general and Hoover's new boss, was thirty years younger. All of the factors that cause older, experienced people to resent younger, idealistic people were at work in undermining the relationship between Hoover and his new masters.

After eight years of Eisenhower administration's older and more experienced hands, the Kennedys trumpeted a young, vibrant energy and a desire to get things done. New ideas. New approaches. New programs.

Hoover's age (65) and rigid beliefs had isolated him from the "youth culture" that was emerging in American society. Young people were questioning traditions and policies. Hair was getting longer and dress progressively more informal. Students in San Francisco demonstrated against the excesses of Hoover's favorite government group HUAC. Racial unrest was increasing.

Despite rumors to the contrary, the relationship with the Kennedy brothers was not really a bad one. Hoover had enjoyed a long friendship with the staunchly conservative patriarch Joseph Kennedy. John Kennedy, whose legendary love life was thoroughly documented in Hoover's files, was smart enough not to anger the old man. Instead, he was very polite, and Hoover, in return, was polite and protective.

When Judith Campbell, alleged mistress of mob bosses Sam Giancana and John Rosselli, wormed her way into JFK's favor, Hoover took it upon himself to warn Kennedy in March of 1962 about the dangers of such intimate associations. Kennedy took his advice, realizing that if Hoover knew about these relationships, the American public could learn as well.

The relationship between Bobby and Hoover was a tense one, but according to Courtney Evans, the liaison between the two, there was never a direct confrontation. Many of Hoover's grumbling was over trivial matters like Bobby's shirtsleeves approach to office attire, bringing his dog to work (who soiled the carpet), playing darts in the AG's office (which left marks in the woodwork). Evans believed that the two men were actually very similar: "When I look at Bob Kennedy in 1961, I figured that's the way Hoover had operated in 1924...same kind of temperament, impatient with inefficiency, demanding as to detail, a system of logical reasoning for a position, and pretty much of a hard taskmaster."

Even before Bobby Kennedy became Hoover's boss, the FBI director had significantly changed his attitude on organized crime. Ever since Prohibition, Hoover had maintained that there was no national crime syndicate. Yes, there were criminal acts by Italian, Irish and Jewish gangsters, but they were on a local level and needed to be addressed by local law enforcement groups. An incident in 1957 when sixty-two retired businessmen of Italian descent were arrested at the New York estate of Joseph Barbara, Sr. embarrassed Hoover into learning a great deal more about organized crime. At that time, the FBI could not even recognize the names of the mob bosses that ran the crime fiefdoms across the country.

Then in 1961 with Bobby Kennedy's crusade against organized crime, Hoover made it a major priority. Kennedy supported this by shepherding new crime laws through Congress that strengthened the Bureau's jurisdiction in organized crime cases. The only problem was that Hoover was using surveillance techniques on a large scale that were illegal and he was afraid Bobby Kennedy would find out about it. Traditional wiretaps were being supplemented by trespassing to install electronic bugs. Hoover did not ask permission, but on the other hand, exposed Bobby to the evidence that had been collected from the illegal surveillance microphones, so that Bobby could not plead ignorance at a later date.

Bobby's crusade against organized crime resulted in some difficulties. First of all, through patriarch Joseph Kennedy, a relationship already existed with Sam Giancana, the powerful mob boss in Chicago who helped deliver the crucial primary votes to Kennedy in the 1960 election. The relationship with the Kennedy's was enhanced when Frank Sinatra arranged for JFK to meet Judith Campbell.

Even before JFK's election, Hoover knew from his electronic surveillance that Giancana had been working with an assassin to bump off Fidel Castro. The Mob had significant gambling and other vice assets in Cuba that were threatened by Castro's regime. Hoover later became aware that mobsters Giancana and John Roselli were in league with the CIA to have Castro assassinated. Wiretaps also revealed that Judith Campbell was telephoning the White House from Giancana's home.

In December of 1961, Hoover informed Bobby Kennedy that Giancana felt he was "not getting his money's worth" out of his Kennedy campaign donations. This had to be a real source of tension between the two Kennedy brothers and their father. Not only was this mob association threatening the Kennedy image, Hoover of all people had it thoroughly documented. Less than a week later, Joseph suffered a massive stroke which robbed him of his power of speech.

JFK got the message loud and clear and disassociated himself with Campbell and Sinatra. Giancana was furious. Not only was his influence on the Kennedys dwindling down to nothing, Hoover had FBI agents swarming all over him.

The Kennedy associations with gangsters was not the only source of tension between Bobby Kennedy and Hoover. Another was the Bureau's attitude towards Afro-Americans and the civil rights movement. Bobby stayed on Hoover's back about increasing the number of minority agents. Many have alleged that Hoover was against Afro-Americans, but that is not true. His housekeeper was black and five employees of the Bureau who attended to Hoover's personal needs were also black. Hoover just did not see an expanded role for people of color beyond waiting on white people. Naturally, this bigotry, like all of Hoover's other beliefs, became part of the entrenched culture of the Bureau. Passive bigotry not hiring or promoting people because of their race was undisputedly wrong for a national law enforcement agency though not unusual for the times. However, the aggressive, systematic campaign to destroy one of the most gifted black leaders in the country was inexcusable.

King at FBI (UPI)
King at FBI (UPI)

Martin Luther King's leadership gifts and his ability to galvanize multitudes of black and white followers troubled Hoover. King first came to Hoover's attention in late 1950's when he fraternized with a black Communist named Benjamin Davis. As King rose in stature as a black leader, the Bureau increased its surveillance.

In Ovid Demaris's J. Edgar Hoover As They Knew Him, it seems quite clear that Hoover was out to get King. "From the first days of Kennedy's Attorney Generalship, Hoover bombarded him with memoranda linking King with 'two hardcore, controlled Communists,' one of whom believed to have direct links to a Soviet 'apparatus.' In Hoover's strongly stated opinion, these men were seeking to gain control over King, and hence over the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and, to a large extent, the civil rights movement."

In June of 1963, Bobby told Hoover that he was going to warn King about his dangerous associations. In a White House meeting, King was given a clear message: "First, it was Burke Marshall, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, whispering into his ear. Levison [Stanley] and O'Dell [Jack] must go. Concrete evidence, which neither he nor King could be allowed to see, proved that the pair were working for the Communist party. And if word got out, John Kennedy's political future would be threatened. John Kennedy, supporter of civil rights legislation..." (Gentry)

It didn't seem to work. King was skeptical and eventually JFK himself had to speak to him about the seriousness of the matter. Finally he dismissed O'Dell, but refused to take any action on Levison. Levison, himself, decided to make the break so that the civil rights movement would not be compromised by his association with King.

On August 28, 1963, King made his powerful "I have a dream" speech to the crowds assembled in Washington. The wiretaps that night in the Willard Hotel had revealed a rich extramarital sex life for the Reverend Dr. King . Hoover the Puritan was appalled that a clergyman would behave that way, but he was jubilant that the evidence had come into his hands from a bug planted by the D.C. police.

The next day, William Sullivan, head of the Bureau's Domestic Intelligence Division commented, "Personally, I believe in the light of King's powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this Nation from the standpoint of Communism, the Negro and national security."

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