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Bobby and J. Edgar: The Bitter Face-off Between the Kennedys and Hoover That Transformed America

By Burton Hersh, Carroll & Graf, 496 pages, $27.95

Political intrigue, Shakespearean characters, sex and conspiracy theories. Sounds like a Jeffrey Archer or John Le Carré novel that could be made into a blockbuster movie.

However, those words can actually describe the contents of a recent book from the author Burton Hersh about the often-peculiar interactions between one of America’s premier political families and one of the most important government officials of the 20th century. Historian Hersh has produced a detailed narrative that takes readers behind the scenes of some of the key historical events of modern times.

Bobby and J. Edgar: The Bitter Face-off Between the Kennedys and Hoover That Transformed America is an engagingly written, if overly long, account of a seminal relationship that was both adversarial and collaborative. Hersh is more sympathetic to the Kennedys than to longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, but after this warts-and-all book, the reader winds up not particularly admiring either.

Hoover was a friend, and occasional houseguest, of family patriarch Joseph Kennedy, but that didn’t stop the FBI head from trying to undermine the political rise of Joe’s sons, John and Robert.

“This long and mutually beneficial association in no way inhibited Hoover (one of the nation’s finest at dealing off the bottom of the deck) from intervening covertly to bust the [ John] Kennedy presidential momentum,’’ Hersh writes. “The Director had already suffered through a couple of run-ins with Bobby while he was tearing the country up ramrodding the Senate Rackets Committee. Edgar invariably preferred to head off trouble.’’

The book covers the historical waterfront, including the sexual exploits of several Kennedys and Hoover, Bobby Kennedy’s work on the staff of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Hoover’s spying on his enemies. Hersh, who has written extensively about the Kennedy family, the intelligence community and a range of other historical topics, doesn’t hold back. His book is an encyclopedic treatment, though it might have benefited from more judicious editing so the final product were a bit shorter.

History aficionados and conspiracy buffs will find much to feast on. Hersh documents Bobby Kennedy’s efforts to shape the investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination and Hoover’s campaign to influence the Warren Commission. Also, the author goes to great lengths to try to disprove the single-bullet theory. His analysis is compelling, but inconclusive, and guarantees that the debate will go on for many years.

Hersh’s inclusion of such a broad range of subjects makes Bobby and J. Edgar a book that will appeal to specialist and general readers alike. It also reminds one that truth can at times be stranger and more surreal than fiction.


Originally published in the February 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.