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How JFK’s Death Hurt Bobby Kennedy’s War Against the Mafia

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Meier, a former correspondent for TIME, is the author of Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty

BOBBY KENNEDY, the youngest Attorney General that the country had seen since 1814, came into the Department of Justice with a battle plan. Bobby’s critics would call it a settling of scores—the list of enemies, headed by Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters, followed closely by Roy Cohn, was long. Atop the Justice Department, Kennedy vowed to galvanize the power of federal law enforcement: “Kennedy Justice” would be activist, the bulwark of reform in his brother’s administration. Bobby worried, too, about civil rights. But his schooling as a Senate investigator had lent him a singular focus: He wanted to expose and, if at all possible, curb the growing power of organized crime across the country.

“Bob Kennedy,” as those who knew him best often called RFK, intended to fight a long campaign. “Bob planned a war,” Jack Miller, his Criminal Division chief, would say, “and Morgy”—the nickname Robert M. Morgenthau had acquired among the Kennedy men—“was going to be central to it.”

Bob Morgenthau had known RFK and his older brother Jack Kennedy since their days as boys sailing off Cape Cod in the 1930s. In 1960, Morgenthau, decorated WWII hero, Yale Law graduate, and son of FDR’s good friend and long-serving Treasury Secretary, would help run JFK’s presidential campaign in New York, and in 1961, President Kennedy had rewarded him with the job of the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York.

Almost at once, Morgenthau staked his ground: His office would become known as primus inter pares—first among equals, across the 93 federal judicial districts. If Bobby Kennedy was loath to admit it in public, among his chief aides at Justice he made no attempt to deny it. And soon enough, under Morgenthau, the Southern District of New York had gained a nickname: “the Sovereign District.”

In launching a war on the Mafia, Kennedy and Morgenthau knew the challenges. Above all, they would have to find investigators and enforcers willing to commit to the fight against organized crime. The FBI, both men knew, would offer more resistance than help: Since the onset of the cold war, J. Edgar Hoover had ceaselessly warned of the “Red threat” but scarcely mentioned “organized crime.” FBI agents were all but banned from uttering the word “Mafia”—no such organization, Hoover insisted, existed in the U.S.

Instead, counterintelligence predominated: In New York in the late 1950s, the Bureau had 150 agents working a single spy case. “We were up to our necks with the Soviets,” Richard McCarthy, a veteran FBI counterintelligence agent, would recall. “But the Italians? Not even on the radar.” Few in federal law enforcement had studied the state of organized crime across the country, let alone attempted to curb its rise. But Kennedy and Morgenthau shared a sense as to where they might find allies. In 1957, on the day before the mass arrests of suspected organized crime bosses in Apalachin, New York, RFK, as counsel to the Senate rackets committee, had asked a witness, an undercover agent of the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), “Is there any organization such as the ‘Mafia,’ or is that just the name given to the hierarchy in the Italian underworld?”

“That is a big question to answer,” Joseph Amato replied. “But we believe there does exist today in the United States a society, loosely organized, for the specific purpose of smuggling narcotics and committing other crimes.”

Morgenthau would turn to the FBN again—in particular to a trusted agent, Frank Selvaggi. Selvaggi had grown up a hardscrabble Italian section of the Bronx, home to many of the wise guys. He’d prove instrumental in bringing in a hoodlum he’d known from “the old neighborhood,” a “made man” in Vito Genovese’s organized crime “family,” who, in the hands of RFK and Morgenthau, would gain infamy as one of the most important witnesses in the history of criminal justice in the United States: Joseph Valachi.

In September 1963, Valachi testified as the star witness at the Senate’s McClellan Committee hearings on organized crime. The televised proceedings proved a national sensation, yet Valachi was a less-than-perfect witness. The gravel-voiced canary, columnist Jack Anderson wrote, “sang like a crow.” He looked the part of a henchman—square head and graying buzz cut—but offered a confessional short on particulars. At times, he stumbled. When a senator from Nebraska asked, “Can you tell me about the state of organized crime in Omaha?,” Valachi turned around to William Hundley, chief of the Justice Department’s organized crime section, seated behind him, and asked, “Where the fuck is Omaha?” Still, Valachi put the lie to Hoover’s blindness in vivid detail: Americans heard the witness speak of bodies, bullets, and millions of dollars reaped in illegal profits. There would be no turning back.

Bobby Kennedy had found his celebrity witness. His chief federal prosecutor in New York was elated: Valachi’s testimony spelled the end of omertà—the once-impenetrable code of silence—and the start of the war on the Mafia. But for Morgenthau, Valachi’s confessional also marked a far more personal threshold: He and Bobby Kennedy, who at least in their public personae, appeared near opposites, had not only found an easy kinship: Now they would be bound in common cause.

Robert Kennedy
Minister of Justice Robert Kennedy hearing by Senate commission about the organized crime and the Cosa Nostra in United States and Canada in September 30, 1963 in Washington DC, United States.Keystone-France-Getty Images

NOVEMBER 20, 1963, was the Attorney General’s thirty-eighth birthday. At Justice, they had held an impromptu party in his office. Bobby had climbed on the desk in the enormous office to deliver a mock oration. He spoke of his successful but politically controversial run— managing Jack’s campaign, playing the lead in his cabinet, championing civil rights, leading the fight against Hoffa, and pushing for a bill to authorize FBI wiretapping—with irony. He’d built a record, he joked dryly, sure to be a boon to his brother’s reelection. Ramsey Clark would remember Bobby being “melancholic—almost hopeless-sounding.” It seemed as if he was done as attorney general, and Kennedy Justice—from RFK’s own zeal and outsized role in the administration to the re- cent headlines over his hunger for more FBI bugging—had become a political liability. Another aide recalled saying, “I guess Bob won’t be here by Christmas.”

The next day, Bobby presided over an organized crime conclave—U.S. attorneys had flown in from across the country. Morgenthau had come down to D.C., bringing with him Sil Mollo, his Criminal Division chief. In the wake of the Cosa Nostra revelations, Kennedy decided it was time for the next phase. One day was not enough: Bobby had asked the men to stay on, the meeting continuing on Friday morning. Bobby wore a light-gray suit, two-buttoned, long lapel—“a Kennedy suit,” as it was now called. As usual, he had tugged open the tie, tossed the coat on a chair, rolled up his shirtsleeves. Bobby liked what he heard. Progress had been slow, but it was coming.

“It was a good meeting,” Jack Miller would say. “You could really feel we were getting somewhere.”

At a quarter past noon, Kennedy looked at his watch, and said, “What do you say? Shall we make it back here at 2:15?” The meeting adjourned, and the young prosecutors of the department headed back to their offices on the second floor.

Bobby had made no secret of his desire to move on from Justice. Three weeks later, once he’d found the strength and returned to the office, he would call in his closest aides and hand each a set of gold Tiffany cuff links, inscribed with the seal of the Justice Department, RFK’s and the man’s initials, and the dates “1961–64.” Bill Geoghegan would recall Bobby telling him, as early as 1962, when JFK named Byron White to the Supreme Court, how surprised he was that White, at forty-four, would go to the Court: “I’ll be moving on,” he’d said, “and he can have this job.” Bobby often aired the options. “At one point, he wanted to be Ambassador to Vietnam,” Ted Sorensen would say. “At another, he would become Secretary of State. He thought one way or another, ‘I’m going to be leaving the Justice Department: I can’t stay on as A.G. and run my brother’s campaign.’”

All that fall in New York, in the office of the Southern District, many of Morgenthau’s men had heard the whispers. “There was a rumor RFK planned on quitting soon to run JFK’s reelection campaign,” Bob Arum would recall, “and Morgenthau was slated to take over as the new A.G.”

“Of all the U.S. attorneys with whom Bob Kennedy interacted,” John Seigenthaler, a top RFK aide, adjudged, “if you asked him: Who was the best among peers, who stands out? it would be Morgenthau. No question.”

On that Friday in November, as Bobby led his guests from New York out of the department, he took his own car, a Ford Galaxie, the top down in the unseasonably warm weather. Morgenthau was not surprised: The attorney general cruising alone in the convertible along Pennsylvania Avenue was not an uncommon sight. They drove out across the Potomac to Hickory Hill, the family home in nearby McLean, Virginia. Bobby had called ahead to tell Ethel that Morgenthau and an assistant would be coming out for lunch. She was pleased, eager to present the new baby— Christopher, born that July. When the car pulled up, Ethel was there to greet them in gray slacks and a green sweater.

A table had been set on the terrace near the pool. Bobby asked Morgenthau and Mollo if they’d care for a swim, and even when they declined, he went in for a few minutes, then changed into dry shorts. They sat at the small table to eat a simple lunch: clam chowder and tuna fish sandwiches.

The conversation was congenial, informal. Beyond the wide lawn, at the top of the gentle hill, workmen were painting a new wing on the far side of the house. Morgenthau watched as one performed a balancing act: hanging shutters with one hand while holding a transistor radio in the other. They had just finished the clam chowder and were about to start on the sandwiches. Bobby glanced at his watch, and told Morgenthau and Mollo, “We’d better hurry and get back to that meeting.”

It was about a quarter to two o’clock when a maid came over to the table and said to the attorney general, “Mr. J. Edgar Hoover is on the White House phone.”

Kennedy excused himself and walked over to the telephone at the pool house, by the shallow end of the pool about forty feet away.

“I kept talking with Mrs. Kennedy,” Morgenthau would say, “but I could see the Attorney General at the phone.”

At the same time, the workman came over. He was wearing overalls and a painter’s cap, and he held the transistor radio in his hand. “It says on the radio that the President was shot.”

Somehow, it did not sink in.

Morgenthau’s first reaction “was that this is some sort of nut.” Mollo and Ethel also heard the workman. Bobby did not. He was standing near the far end of the pool. The call with Hoover did not last more than twenty seconds. “There was a look of shock and horror on his face,” Morgenthau would recall. Ethel saw it, too. “At the telephone, Bobby just clapped his right hand over his open mouth.” He hung up the phone and turned away. Ethel had run over to him, and threw her arms around him. Bobby could not speak for another fifteen seconds. Then he turned, almost forcing out the words.

“The President’s been shot. It may be fatal.”

Bobby ran up to the house. Ethel followed, inviting Morgenthau and Mollo to sit in the living room, by the stairs, and watch the television. There were bulletins from Dallas: No one knew how the president was, but they were giving hope. “They were still reporting that he was in the emergency room,” Morgenthau would say.

After a time, Bobby came back downstairs. He stood for a moment by a door to the living room, looking in.

“He died,” Bobby said, and then the Attorney General left.

Kennedy Funeral
Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren reads his tribute to martyred President John F Kennedy in ceremonies in the rotunda of the US Capitol, Washington DC, November 24, 1963. The late President's casket had been moved from the White House to the Capitol to permit the public to pay its last respects. Jacqueline Kennedy stands at the right, holding daughter Caroline's hand. Pictured are, from left, Senator Mike Mansfield, Stephen Smith, a brother-in-law of the late President, President Johnson, behind Robert Kennedy, Peter Lawford, comforting 7-year-old daughter Sydney, Mrs Lawford, President Kennedy's sisters Patricia, Mrs Kennedy, and Caroline. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)Getty Images

IN THE DAYS that followed the assassination, Washington and the nation fell numb, mourning and in shock. “Bob Kennedy did not come back to the office for a long time,” said Jack Miller, chief of the Criminal Division at Justice. Decades later, Miller remembered the days with pain. “Bob was in a kind of fog—we all were.”

If anyone could lift the cloud, it would have to be Robert Kennedy himself. Just before Christmas, he attended a Christmas party for an orphanage—he had promised to go long before the assassination. The journalist Peter Maas went with him, and on the walk from the Justice Department they had bought toys. As Bobby walked in, the children were screaming and playing, but suddenly there was silence, as everyone stood still. When Bobby moved to the middle of the room, a little boy, no more than six or seven, darted forward, stopping in front of him. “Your brother’s dead!” he blurted out. In the frozen silence that followed, the boy nearly began to cry, but Bobby bent low. “That’s all right,” he said quietly, as if to reassure himself, “I have another brother.”

In early 1964, RFK would travel again to Asia, visiting Indonesia, Malaysia, and the DMZ between the two Koreas. For Bobby it was a “peace mission”—an attempt to broker a ceasefire in the guerrilla war in Borneo, along the Indonesian-Malaysian border. But it was another whirlwind tour, the kind he once took delight in: around the world in thirteen days. At President Lyndon Johnson’s behest, he had met with the leaders of seven countries. Back home by the end of January, on his first morning in Washington RFK went directly to the Oval Office to brief the president for nearly two hours. He then flew to New York to meet with the U.N. secretary general. At the White House and at the U.N., Bobby presented his findings from the trip. Yet before leaving New York, he stopped at Foley Square.

Morgenthau knew Bobby was preoccupied with Asia: His mind was on Borneo and guerrillas, far from Valachi and the Mob. But Morgenthau could sense it: The high-stakes diplomacy had given Bobby a jolt.

He was coming back to life. Yet Morgenthau wondered, too: Could he ever return to fighting form, and be the attorney general again? As Bobby listened, Morgenthau relayed the progress: The office had pushed ahead in the war on the Mafia; new avenues for investigation were emerging. Morgenthau’s men produced charts and surveillance photographs, as he walked Bobby through the myriad relations among the crime families— and their reach across New York and the country.

The Mafia was booming. Revenues in gambling, loan-sharking, and narcotics now approached $9 billion a year. Morgenthau’s men had combed the property records and the FBI reports: Organized crime ran bowling alleys, jukebox and vending machine operations, meat-packaging plants and bakeries, trucking outfits and construction companies. The Five Families maintained control of the old mainstays— restaurants, nightclubs, and bars (especially those, as the Times would report, that “cater to male and female homosexuals”), but they were eating their way into finance: union pension and welfare funds, brokerage houses, and banks.

Organized crime had spread deep, as well, into real estate. They were still working the paper trails, Morgenthau said, but the Mob appeared to have a stake in a swath of prime Manhattan properties: from the Wall Street Journal offices on Broad Street to the Chrysler Building, and even the Midtown building on East Sixty-ninth Street, home not only to the New York telephone company but the FBI’s headquarters in the city.

And yet, the crackdown was showing early returns: In the first six months of 1963, Justice had indicted 171 racketeers—compared with 24 for the same period three years earlier. The FBI, too, at least in his district, was cooperating. In an outreach that would become characteristic of his long tenure to come, Morgenthau had forged a new alliance with the Bureau. He’d befriended the head of the New York field office, and the information flow was running high: The Bureau had collected more than a thousand names to track and deployed a floor of agents in the fight.

He’d devised a strategy, Morgenthau told Kennedy, to take the investigations to a new level. A team of assistants was working to sort the names, assigning each man to one of the Five Families. He would launch a series of grand jury investigations; every crime group would get its own probe. Once his assistants had mapped the names, they would subpoena them all, en masse—and apply pressure on the bosses as never before.

Bobby sat by Morgenthau’s side as he went through the charts. But as the meeting ended, the doubts flooded in: Morgenthau wasn’t sure how much of it the attorney general had heard.

On the next evening, though, Bobby called Jack Miller at home, late in the evening: Where were they, he wanted to know, on “that investigation in Chicago”? Miller was delighted and called Morgenthau straightaway. “It meant,” he would say, that “Bob was back in business.”

Morgenthau readied his men for war. Each boss of the Five Families—Tommy Lucchese, Joseph Bonanno, Vito Genovese, Carlo Gambino, and Michael Miranda, caretaker of the Profaci group—would meet his scrutiny.

In February 1964, Morgenthau impaneled a grand jury to target the Lucchese family, the crew that in the first decade after the war had introduced strong-arm tactics to the city’s politics. At sixty-five years old, five-foot-two, and dapper as ever, Tommy Lucchese had long claimed to be no more than a successful “dress manufacturer,” but nearly every beat cop in New York, and every crime reporter, knew him as “Three-Fingers Brown” (a machine-shop accident had cost him a finger)—a Sicilian-born gangster who had begun his underworld climb almost as soon as he arrived in the city, at age eleven. With Lucchese at the helm, the family had moved into Tammany politics (a son had entered West Point, recommended by a congressman), and it had recently expanded its portfolio, muscling into the garment district. Morgenthau saw an opening: Of the Five Families, the Luccheses had the most street soldiers (the prosecutors tallied more than three hundred names), young men likely to talk.

The grand jury rooms on the fourteenth floor of the federal courthouse became the main theaters of play. Morgenthau would run as many as six grand juries at a time: The long corridor was lined with witnesses and the defense attorneys, forced to wait outside. The prosecutors brought a raft of Lucchese wiseguys before the grand jury—among them, John (“Johnny Dio”) Dioguardi, James (“Jimmy Doyle”) Plumeri, Carmine (“Mr. Gribbs”) Tramunti, all potential heirs apparent. It became a routine, and for months, it worked: They subpoenaed the top ranks of the family to testify before the grand jury, granted them immunity, and if they refused to talk, held them in contempt. In short order, five Lucchese lieutenants had gone to jail.

Still, the prosecutors could be stymied. Vincent Alo presented a memorable case. Better known as “Jimmy Blue Eyes,” Alo was a dashing son of East Harlem who had worked on Wall Street as a teen, befriended Meyer Lansky, and developed a profitable expertise in opening casinos (first in Florida, then in Cuba)—before being publicly identified by Valachi. A captain in the Genovese family, Alo also served as a liaison be- tween Lansky and organized crime families across the country. Yet when Morgenthau’s men brought him before the grand jury, in an hour and a half of testimony, Alo would plead “a memory lapse 134 times.” “The performance of a lifetime,” Gary Naftalis, the twenty-eight-year-old prosecutor who suffered through the testimony, would say.

As the battle went on, threats arose. Judge Lloyd MacMahon found a dog’s head on the porch of his house in White Plains. When Vincent Rao—“counsel” to the Lucchese family, as the consigliere would be de- scribed in court—went before the grand jury, Andy Lawler, lead prosecutor of the group, heard that someone from the neighborhood had approached his father. “Your son’s getting publicity,” the man had said, “this is a good opportunity for him.” Lawler recognized it as a “none- too-subtle” warning.

By the second week of February 1964, Tommy Lucchese himself arrived at the U.S. Court House. Bobby Kennedy flew in for the event; Morgenthau met him at LaGuardia.

As Lucchese entered the grand jury room, the police held back the throng of reporters—and the U.S. attorney walked the corridors with the attorney general, only pausing to ask an assistant for the latest news from inside.

Morgenthau would long remember the day as the abortive start of a marathon: Lucchese pleaded the Fifth and was on his way out of the grand jury room within ten minutes. Yet he would be summoned again, and again. In July 1965, called back before the grand jury, Lucchese seemed to suffer under the questioning. In one session, he excused him- self to confer with his attorney eighty-three times in three hours. Morgenthau’s men would plead with a judge to stop the obstructionist parleys, but to no avail.

The standoff continued. Lucchese appeared at the courthouse so often, and was chased by reporters each time, that once he and Morgenthau had come face-to-face—and promptly turned their backs on one another. Morgenthau subpoenaed nearly three dozen members of the family, but the boss eluded him. In the summer of 1966, Lucchese was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and within a year, at age sixty-seven, he was dead.

Bobby Kennedy’s return to Justice would be short-lived. For months, he had mused openly to aides, and to Morgenthau, about a possible new turn: running for vice president with President Johnson in the fall of 1964. But in late July 1964, a day after meeting with Bobby, the president went before the television cameras to rule out any further such talk. “No cabinet officers would be considered for the Vice Presidency,” LBJ said. It was hardly a surprise.

Bobby, in turn, was already thinking of moving on—and running for the Senate. For months, Kennedy had been paying more attention to New York, and he began to sound out Morgenthau on matters beyond Justice. RFK knew the U.S. attorney as a native New Yorker with deep ties to the party men, labor bosses, Wall Street leaders, and enough of the city’s Jewish leaders to gauge the atmosphere. “Bob relied on Morgenthau’s advice and information that was political in 1964,” Seigenthaler would say. “He’d consulted Morgenthau and had many conversations, before Bob made the decision to run”—and Morgenthau was there at Gracie Mansion in late August, when Bobby announced his campaign for the Senate from New York.

The U.S. attorney worried that RFK had yet to recover from the assassination. The two saw each other often that summer: As Kennedy geared up his campaign against the incumbent Republican, Kenneth Keating, they discussed how best to navigate the New York party—and to escape the taint of carpetbagging. In the early stages of the race, Morgenthau accompanied Bobby on trips around the state; he would recall “how difficult it was for him to focus on the campaign.” Bobby was “still so preoccupied with his brother’s death,” Morgenthau would say, and “not sure whether he was doing the right thing.” The campaign, he sensed, was less a drive for political change than an act of personal recovery.

For Morgenthau, one line was clear: The other campaign, the crusade that had bound him so closely with RFK, was over. “I saw him often,” Morgenthau would say, “but we never spoke about organized crime again.”

Adapted from Andrew Meier’s new book Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty

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