A series Martin did for the Saturday Evening Post on a government investigation of one of the country’s largest and most powerful unions—the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America, more commonly known as the Teamsters—put him in the middle of a titanic battle between two men: a determined (some said ruthless) investigator, Robert F. Kennedy, and a rough-and-tumble union man, James R. Hoffa.
Journalists had been investigating rumors that Teamster officials had been enriching themselves at the expense of their members, and gangsters, salivating over the union’s large pension fund ($250 million), had made inroads into its operations. During the 1956 California presidential primary, when Martin had found himself “swamped with too many speeches to write” for Stevenson, Pierre Salinger, a former newspaper reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and then the West Coast correspondent for Collier’s magazine, offered his help.
According to Martin, Salinger produced a few speech drafts, from which he used little, but one day Salinger brought to Martin’s hotel room in San Francisco a Collier’s editor, who asked Martin to research and write an article on the Teamsters (the union was not then under investigation). “I told him I couldn’t undertake it till after the election; he said he couldn’t wait; I suggested he get Pierre Salinger to do it, and he did,” Martin recalled.
Salinger jumped at the chance to write about such a powerful organization. As one Teamster official told him, discussing the union’s firm grip on the country, “When a woman takes a cab to the hospital to have a baby, the cab is driven by a Teamster. When the baby grows old and dies, the hearse is driven by a Teamster. And in between we supply him with a lot of groceries.”
Unfortunately for Salinger, just when he finished his article, Collier’s went out of business. He had two job opportunities waiting for him—one as public relations director for the Teamsters, and the other as an investigator with a U.S. Senate subcommittee created on January 31, 1957, the Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or ManagementField, which came to be widely known as the Rackets Committee. In addition to the Teamsters, the committee investigated other unions as well as the growing influence of the Mafia and the Chicago Syndicate.
Salinger went to work in February 1957 for the committee, chaired by conservative Democratic senator John L. McClellan of Arkansas, and shared what he had learned about the Teamsters with its chief counsel, Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of John Kennedy. Another journalist, Clark R. Mollenhoff, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for the Des Moines Register, had for months been badgering Kennedy to probe the Teamsters possible illegal activities.
Martin had first become acquainted with Robert Kennedy during Stevenson’s 1956 presidential campaign, which Kennedy had joined to learn how to run such an organization in anticipation of his brother seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 1960. “He told me later he had learned how not to run one,” Martin noted. Robert Kennedy described the Stevenson effort to a friend over drinks as a disaster and told Martin he had never seen such a poorly run operation. “He should have seen 1952,” said Martin.
The two men’s paths crossed again when Martin received word from his editors at the Post that the magazine was interested in a series of articles on the Rackets Committee’s more than two-year-long investigation of the Teamsters and its top officials, including Dave Beck (convicted of federal tax evasion charges in 1959) and James R. Hoffa (convicted of bribing a grand juror in 1964, he disappeared from view in 1975, never to be seen alive again). When the committee held public hearings, newspapers had published “scrappy reports,” said Martin, but, as Rose pointed out, nobody had yet been able to “put the whole story together,” and he suggested Martin take on the task.
The resulting seven-part series, published in the Post from June 27 to August 8, 1959, was Martin’s longest yet, taking him nearly a year to put together, and setting a mileage record for his legwork, as he traveled 17,000 miles around the country. In conducting his research, Martin filled twenty 150-page notebooks and wrote a first draft that ran 1,500 pages and 336,000 words; his final manuscript totaled 40,000 words.
Martin had unearthed a remarkable study in power—the vast economic power wielded by the Teamsters, with its more than 1.5 million members the largest labor union in the world, versus the great political power wielded by the U.S. Senate. The resulting investigation stood as one of the largest by a government entity since the days of the Teapot Dome scandal of the President Warren G. Harding administration of the 1920s and the banking and security fraud inquiries of the 1930s. “They exposed wrongdoings in big business; the McClellan committee alone has gone after big labor,” said Martin.
The Rackets Committee’s work (1,366 witnesses questioned produced a printed record of testimony that ran to 20,000 pages) sent shockwaves through both political parties, as well as the labor movement in America, and raised essential questions still being argued about today—the use of and abuse of the Fifth Amendment, the authority of Congress to investigate, the rights of individual workingmen in a labor union, and the rights of an individual testifying before Congress.
The investigation also pitted the titanic personalities of two men, Robert Kennedy and Hoffa, who became “bitter antagonists,” noted Martin. Hoffa viewed Kennedy as a rich, “spoiled jerk,” while Kennedy’s determination to uncover the labor leader’s criminal activity became “a holy crusade” to him, one of his friends confided to Martin. Kennedy himself said the way Hoffa operated the Teamsters meant it no longer served as a bona fide union: “As Mr. Hoffa operates it, this is a conspiracy of evil.”
To report on the investigation, Martin traveled to Washington, D.C., staying there off and on for more than half a year and becoming a familiar presence at the Rackets Committee’s offices in Room 101 at the Old Senate Office Building. For his story he spent more time with Kennedy than with anyone else, sometimes visiting with him all day in his private office and going with him at day’s end to his home, Hickory Hill, in McLean, Virginia, for dinner—often a hair-raising ride, as Kennedy, recalled Martin, “loved to drive his big convertible fast from office to home, his hair flying.”
On weekends at Hickory Hill Martin played, “not very well,” he admitted, the traditional Kennedy family sport of touch football (at that time Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, had six children), swam with Kennedy in his pool, and accompanied him as he made trips around the country pursuing leads from whistleblowers in the union. “I liked Bobby Kennedy from the start,” said Martin. “Though born to wealth and power, he had about him not a trace of superiority or affectation.”
Although dedicated to his work—Martin said he “seemed almost obsessed”—Kennedy infused his office with a youthful, lighthearted atmosphere. Martin remembered coming into Kennedy’s office and seeing him and Kenneth O’Donnell, his administrative assistant, passing a football back and forth as they discussed the investigation (the two men were on the football team together at Harvard University). “He moved fast, handling his body well, like an athlete,” Martin said of Kennedy. “He ran upstairs and downstairs. He scheduled himself remorselessly, and he drove his staff just as hard.”
Driving Kennedy’s determination was the worry in the back of his mind that if the investigation proved to be a flop, it might have a negative effect on his brother’s political future, both his reelection to the U.S. Senate in 1958 and his try for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960. “A lot of people think he’s the Kennedy running the investigation,” Robert said of John, one of the four Democratic senators who served on the Rackets Committee. “As far as the public is concerned, one Kennedy is the same as another Kennedy.”
When Robert Kennedy’s work took him to the Chicago area, he and some of his investigators sometimes stayed with Martin at his home in Highland Park, including one trip when Kennedy and his men were in the area to dig up a body in a cornfield near Joliet, Illinois. Walter Sheridan, whom Martin considered to be one of Kennedy’s best investigators, later indicated that Kennedy and his staff had been looking for the body of a woman reporter from Joliet allegedly killed for daring to expose labor racketeering in the city. They had been tipped off by a convict in the prison there who said he knew where the body had been buried; it turned out to be a bogus tip, but Kennedy and those with him turned over a lot of earth in a farmer’s field before realizing “the prisoner was just stringing them along,” Sheridan said. “They did a lot of digging.”)
As Martin got deeper and deeper into his story, he discovered that there seemed to be two different Robert Kennedys (a theme picked up on by many other journalists during Kennedy’s subsequent career). There was the person few in the public saw—the family man who went home to Hickory Hill and loved having his children swarm over him when he opened the front door. Those who watched the Rackets Committee’s hearing on national television, however, only witnessed the relentless prosecutor, hectoring hostile witnesses who dodged his questions on Fifth Amendment grounds, earning for Kennedy a reputation for ruthlessness that dogged him until the end of his life.
Instead of seeing a coldblooded individual, however, Martin thought of Kennedy as “hard driving, tenacious, aggressive, [and] competitive”—a person who said his long and eventually unsuccessful campaign with the Rackets Committee to put Hoffa behind bars was “a little like 1864, when [General Ulysses S.] Grant took over the Union Army to go back into the wilderness—to go back slugging it out.” Unlike some of his friends who were concerned about possible infringements of civil liberties, Martin did not believe Kennedy persecuted Hoffa or denied him his constitutional rights. “As a crime reporter, I had seen far worse prosecutions,” said Martin. “Indeed, I thought he treated Hoffa fairly, on the whole.”
What Martin could not understand was Kennedy’s conviction that the labor leader represented America’s biggest problem—a notion that sounded odd to someone who had only recently been involved in a presidential campaign concerned with helping reign in the worldwide threat of nuclear destruction. Kennedy believed that if someone did not do something about Hoffa’s damaging influence on the Teamsters, gangsters would soon have a stranglehold on the country’s economy.
During the investigation Kennedy had also grown to admire the rank-and-file members of the Teamsters, and he believed that Hoffa had engaged in sweetheart contracts with employers, receiving kickbacks in return and denying workers their fair due. Kennedy also possessed, like some politicians Martin had known, an almost mystical faith in the democratic system—a faith readers of the Post likely shared. “Like them [other politicians],” noted Martin, “he links it with the righteousness of his own cause. He feels that, although Hoffa may win a battle, he can never win the war, because justice and right will prevail, owing to the excellence of this democratic system and the good sense and decency of the American people.”
Martin held a much harsher opinion of the investigators who worked for Kennedy. Most of them were in their late twenties and early thirties and had previously worked as newspapermen, FBI agents, or policemen. Kennedy had, at the inquiry’s peak, forty-two investigators on his staff, aided by forty men from the government’s General Accounting Office. “These men,” Martin noted in his articles for the Post, “condemn wrongdoing unequivocally. For many of them the crusade against Hoffa is their first cause, important as first love. There is something a little chilling about their moral certitude and zeal.” They lacked, Martin later reflected, the tolerance for human weakness he had seen in the work of big-city detectives he had known.
The investigators’ ardor for justice did translate into meticulous evidence gathering. Kennedy told Martin that for every witness called to testify before the committee, twenty-five people had been interviewed and they examined tens of thousands of documents for every one placed into the record. During one inquiry, Salinger and two other investigators went through more than 600,000 checks from one company alone. Sheridan noted that as long as those on staff did their work to the best of their abilities, they could always count on the leader’s support—something he had not had in his previous job. “The big difference—it was just a phenomenal difference to me—of going from the FBI to work for Robert Kennedy was that with the FBI you knew that J. Edgar Hoover would never back you up,” said Sheridan, “and with Robert Kennedy you knew that he would. It was all the difference in the world.”
Kennedy’s cooperation with Martin was part of the chief counsel’s ongoing effort to cultivate good relations with the press, especially with columnists and magazine writers. Edwin O. Guthman, a reporter with the Seattle Times who later became Kennedy’s press secretary at the Justice Department, said that in his journalism career he had never encountered someone in public life who had answered his questions “as candidly and completely as he [Kennedy] did,” and he often briefed reporters in considerable detail about the evidence to be presented at a committee hearing. Kennedy developed “special relationships” with certain reporters, noted Guthman during the investigation of Beck, and these writers always had access to him and received tips on stories and verification of information when needed.
As a reporter, Martin said it made him “a little nervous” to see journalists who had completed independent investigations on the Teamsters, such as Mollenhoff, exchanging information with Kennedy about what they had uncovered. In a draft for his Post series Martin had included a passage, cut from the published piece, pointing out that some newspapermen had become so close to the investigation that they attended committee staff parties almost like members of the staff themselves and some shared their “zeal for getting Jimmy Hoffa.” As a representative of the Post, one of the country’s leading magazines, Martin said he could count on Kennedy’s full cooperation, as he “was anxious that the Post story come out well; it was the first full-dress account that tried to pull the whole investigation together.”
To gain a broader perspective on the Teamsters investigation, Martin also talked to some of the senators serving on the Rackets Committee, including McClellan and the leading Republican member of the panel, Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona, who he found to be “an amusing, engaging man.” Martin found himself spending a lot of his time with John Kennedy, seeing him alone in his Senate office, having breakfast with him at a New York hotel, and eating dinner with him and his wife, Jacqueline, in Washington, D.C. When they were alone together, Martin remembered that he and the Massachusetts senator “talked politics almost entirely.” Kennedy had been gearing up to run for president in 1960 and the primaries were about to begin in little more than a year. Although winning primary races did not translate into a clear path to the nomination, they were important to Kennedy as a way of showing to party leaders skeptical of his youth and religion, as well as grassroot Democrats, that he could win support from a broad spectrum of voters.
Knowing of Martin’s experience in Stevenson’s two presidential efforts, Kennedy picked his brain on what kind of campaign staff he might need, his opinion on various issues, and how to connect with the academic world when it came to developing policy ideas and position papers. “Jack Kennedy struck me as an extremely attractive and extremely intelligent young man,” Martin said. “He presented a lighthearted funny exterior, sometimes almost frivolous, but inwardly he was deadly serious and he had an astonishing fund of information about all manner of subjects, such as France’s problems in Algeria and the number of Nigerian exchange students in the United States.” He also seemed, unlike Stevenson, to “welcome challenges, not be burdened by them,” Martin noted. Many people Martin ran into that spring and summer in Washington, D.C., including some former Stevenson supporters, had begun to proselytize on Kennedy’s behalf. Martin still had his doubts about Kennedy, as he was unsure if he was presidential material, noting, “He was so young.”
For the other part of his story for the Post, Martin had to somehow convince a suspicious and hostile Hoffa to talk with him. It would not be the first time in his journalism career that Martin had come up against a recalcitrant Teamsters official. During his time as a young reporter with the Indianapolis Times, Martin had covered a truck strike and attempted to interview Daniel J. Tobin, then the Teamsters president, at the union’s headquarters at 222 East Michigan Street in Indianapolis (the union moved its headquarters to Washington, D.C., in 1953). Martin remembered that Tobin’s office had a door that “was locked and steel-barred, like a prison cell.” He had to stand in the corridor and shout his questions at the union leader, who yelled his answers back to Martin, usually responding with such curt statements as, “No,” “No comment,” or, simply, “Go to hell.” No reporter, Martin ruefully noted, had ever “got much out of the Teamsters.”
With this experience behind him, Martin decided to use the prestige of his status as a reporter with the Post, and the possibility of finally telling his side of the story in an unbiased manner to the American people, to convince Hoffa to open up to him about his life and work. He adopted the stratagem of calling Hoffa not from his home, but from the Post’s Chicago advertising office, having the switchboard operator place the call, and leaving the Post’s telephone number for Hoffa to call back. “Moreover,” said Martin, “this kept my home telephone number, and hence my address, out of Teamsters headquarters, which seemed only prudent in view of the reputation of Hoffa’s associates.” The strategy worked; after a week of telephone calls, Hoffa finally called Martin back and agreed to an interview at Teamsters headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Ushered into Hoffa’s plush office, Martin spent two hours interviewing the Teamsters president, mindful that their talk was probably being recorded. He was able to convince Hoffa that he wanted to hear his point of view on the union controversy, and Hoffa agreed to tell other union officials to talk to Martin and allowed the reporter to follow him as he did his job, including negotiating contracts with Midwest truckers in Chicago and accompanying him on a flight from Chicago to Miami for the Teamsters’ annual meeting. Martin, who refused to accept an airline ticket bought for him by Hoffa (Martin had anticipated such a move and had bought his own), sat by him for the entire flight, and the two men talked all night with few interruptions, except for one by a stewardess who recognized Hoffa, “which secretly pleased him,” noted Martin.
Instead of asking questions about the investigation, which he knew Hoffa would either be unresponsive about or refuse to answer, Martin concentrated on details about the union leader’s life and his views about the U.S. labor movement. “I liked him,” he said of Hoffa, perhaps because the two men viewed themselves as fighting for the underdog. At one point in his life Hoffa had been arrested eighteen times in one day for his union activities, but he persevered to become president of Teamsters Local 299 in Detroit. The local served as his power base as he clawed his way to the union presidency using, along the way, often brutal tactics and counting on allies who had no qualms about using force to get their way. “I’m no damn angel,” Hoffa said.
As Martin insightfully pointed out in his Post series, the image of Hoffa as “the cocky little underdog battling the United States Government is not false; it is his natural role.” In fact, he went on to write, if Robert Kennedy of the Rackets Committee had not existed, Hoffa “would have had to invent him.” A man without hobbies who neither smoked nor drank, Hoffa, a devoted family man, concentrated all his efforts on behalf of the Teamsters, working to gain its members better working conditions and more money. “Running a union is just like running a business,” Hoffa told Martin. “We’re in the business of selling labor. We’re going to get the best price we can.”
In evaluating the Rackets Committee’s investigation of the Teamsters, Martin reported that it produced a demand for reform legislation to stem in part the influence of racketeers in the labor movement, and he also had an overall good opinion of the work done by Robert Kennedy and his staff. “There was remarkably little politics in the committee’s work,” Martin wrote. “McClellan stood firm against pressure and made no mistakes. Indeed, had all congressional committees conducted themselves so well, congressional committees would have received less criticism in recent years.” But the federal investigators had failed in one task—Hoffa remained Teamsters president and had been acquitted in the two criminal trials resulting from the committee’s work.
In his time with both Kennedy and Hoffa, Martin also discovered that the two fearsome antagonists shared similar qualities, as they were both “aggressive, competitive, hard-driving, authoritarian, suspicious, temperate, at times congenial and at others curt.” They were also physical men who sought to keep in shape, often by doing push-ups, and in spite of their wealth and power “eschewed frivolity or indulgence and both seemed oblivious of their surroundings. Both were serious men and, in their own ways, dedicated,” Martin later observed. As for their opinions on the long investigation, Martin wrote that Hoffa shrugged off the committee’s relentless focus on his union, saying, “You just put in your time. And when they get tired of kicking us around they’ll adjourn and forget about it.” Kennedy admitted to the writer, “It’s been a real struggle.”
When he had finished his story, Martin offered to show his manuscript to both Hoffa and Kennedy so they could correct any factual errors, but not his interpretations of events. Although Hoffa turned down Martin’s offer, Kennedy spent the better part of a day and well into the night going over the manuscript point by point with Martin at the writer’s hotel room in New York. It proved to be “not an easy negotiation,” said Martin, as Kennedy was as tenacious with the reporter as he had been with reluctant witnesses appearing before the Rackets Committee. “What bothered him the most about the MS [manuscript], I think, were the similarities I noted in the piece between him and Hoffa,” said Martin. “He was amazed and simply could not understand; it had never occurred to him; he had thought of himself as good and Hoffa as evil; I was looking at them from a different angle.”
Once during their discussion Kennedy asked Martin why he had not included statements that could be damaging to Hoffa. “I asked if he could prove them by sworn testimony,” Martin noted. “He said he could not but he knew they were true, he couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t put them in.” The reason Martin was so cautious of course was because of the possibility of a damaging libel action against the Post by Hoffa and the Teamsters. As a lawyer himself, Kennedy should have known this, but Martin put this misunderstanding down to the chief counsel’s youth.
The sometimes contentious back and forth between Kennedy and Martin on the Hoffa story did not diminish Martin’s respect for the investigator, or Kennedy’s esteem for the reporter. Years later, Martin reflected that no matter how much Kennedy viewed Hoffa “as evil and himself as good, he never once objected to my attempts at impartiality. Nor did he ever let those attempts impair our own personal relationship.”