On November 22, 1963 US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who had just turned thirty- eight, was eating lunch — clam chowder and tuna sandwiches — with United States Attorney Robert Morgenthau and his assistant by the pool at Hickory Hill, his Civil War-era mansion in McLean, Virginia, outside the capital. It was a perfect fall day — the kind of bright, crisp Friday afternoon that makes a weekend seem full of promise — and the grounds of the rolling green estate were afl ame with gold and red leaves from the shedding hickories, maples, and oaks that stood sentry over the property. Kennedy had just emerged from a mid- day swim, and as he talked and ate with the visiting lawmen, his trunks were still dripping.
Around 1:45 p.m., the phone extension at the other end of the pool rang. Kennedy’s wife, Ethel, picked it up — she held the receiver out to him. J. Edgar Hoover was calling. Bobby knew immediately something unusual had happened. The FBI director never phoned him at home. The two men regarded each other with a taut wariness that they both knew would only be broken when one of them left office. Each represented to the other what was wrong about America. “I have news for you,” Hoover said. “The president’s been shot.” Hoover’s voice was blunt and matter of fact. Kennedy would always remember not just the FBI chief ’s words, but his chilling tone.
“History cracked open” for America on November 22, 1963, as playwright Tony Kushner observed years later. But the abyss that opened for Bobby Kennedy at that moment was the deepest of all. And it was Hoover, of all people, who brought him news of the apocalypse. “I think he told me with pleasure,” Kennedy would recall.
Twenty minutes later, Hoover phoned again to deliver the final blow: “The president’s dead,” he said and promptly hung up. Again, Kennedy would remember, his voice was oddly flat — “not quite as excited as if he were reporting the fact that he had found a Communist on the faculty of Howard University.”
Hoover’s curt phone calls confirmed that the “perfect communion” between the two brothers, as the New York Times’ Anthony Lewis described the bond between President John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy — a fraternal relationship unprecedented in presidential history — was over. But they also clearly conveyed that Bobby had suffered a death of a different kind. His own power as attorney general instantly started to fade, already to a point where the director of the FBI no longer felt compelled to show deference, or even common human grace, to his superior in the Justice Department.
For the rest of the day and night, Bobby Kennedy would wrestle with his howling grief — crying, or fighting against crying since that was the Kennedy way — while using whatever power was still left him, before the new administration settled firmly into place, to figure out what had really happened in Dallas. He worked the phones at Hickory Hill; he met with a succession of people while waiting for Air Force One to return with the body of his brother, his brother’s widow, and the new president; he accompanied his brother’s remains to the autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital; and he stayed coiled and awake in the White House until early the next morning. Lit up with the clarity of shock, the electricity of adrenaline, he constructed the outlines of the crime.
From his phone calls and conversations that day — and into the following week — it’s possible to trace the paths that Robert Kennedy pursued as he tried to unveil the mystery. “With that amazing computer brain of his, he put it all together on the afternoon of November 22,” his friend, journalist Jack Newfi eld, remarked.
RFK’s search for the truth about the crime of the century has long been an untold story. But it is deeply loaded with historic significance. Kennedy’s investigative odyssey — which began with a frantic zeal immediately after his brother’s assassination, and then secretly continued in fitful bursts until his own murder less than five years later — did not succeed in bringing the case to court. But Robert Kennedy was a central figure in the drama — not only as his brother’s attorney general and the second most powerful official in the Kennedy administration, but as JFK’s principal emissary to the dark side of American power. And his hunt for the truth sheds a cold, bright light on the forces that he suspected were behind the murder of his brother. Bobby Kennedy was America’s fi rst assassination conspiracy theorist.
Predictably, the first phone call that Bobby made on November 22 after his initial conversation with Hoover was to Kenny O’Donnell. JFK’s chief of staff had accompanied the president to Dallas and was with him at Parkland Memorial Hospital when he was pronounced dead at 2:00 p.m. Tough, taciturn, Boston Irish, O’Donnell was second only to Bobby himself in his political guardianship of the president. A close friend since they roomed together at Harvard and played on the college football team, O’Donnell was the man Bobby would have wanted at the scene of a crisis if he couldn’t be there himself. As a B-17 bombardier, he had fl own thirty missions against Nazi Germany, was shot down and then escaped from enemy prison. In his final, legendary game as quarterback at Harvard, he ran for the winning touchdown against archrival Yale on a broken leg.
Bobby ran upstairs to phone O’Donnell from his bedroom, while Morgenthau and his assistant were led to a TV set in the drawing room at Hickory Hill. Not finding O’Donnell at the hospital, Kennedy spoke instead to Secret Service agent Clint Hill, the only offi cer who had performed heroically on the president’s behalf that afternoon. Images of Hill rushing to leap onto the back of JFK’s moving limousine would forever become part of the iconography of that eerie day.
It’s not known precisely what Bobby learned that afternoon from the Secret Service man. But there was a darkness that immediately began growing in Hill and O’Donnell about what they’d seen and heard in Dallas. Neither man would ever be the same after November 22.
O’Donnell was riding immediately behind Kennedy’s limousine in the Dallas motorcade, just ten feet away, along with fellow Boston Irishman Dave Powers, the White House aide and court jester. They were front row witnesses to the assassination. Powers would later say it felt as if they were “riding into an ambush.” O’Donnell and more than one Secret Service man would tell Bobby the same thing that day: They were caught in a crossfire. It was a conspiracy.
Bobby Kennedy came to the same conclusion that afternoon. It was not a “he” who had killed his brother — it was a “they.” This is how he put it to his friend, Justice Department press spokesman Edwin Guthman. The former Pulitzer Prize-winning Seattle Times reporter had become close friends with Kennedy during the 1950s when they both put themselves on the line to investigate corruption and thuggery in the Teamsters’ union. Guthman was one of Bobby’s “band of brothers,” as the attorney general years later inscribed a picture of his young, idealistic Justice Department team. The battle cry from Shakespeare’s Henry V appealed to Bobby’s sense of heroic mission: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers / For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother…/ And gentlemen…now a- bed / Shall think themselves accursed they were not here.” If the perfect communion between Jack and Bobby was at the heart of the Kennedy administration, it was this wider circle of brothers — all intensely devoted to the Kennedy cause — who gave the New Frontier its blood and muscle. Bobby would quietly turn to several of these trusted aides to help him on his quest for the truth.
Guthman was having lunch with a congressman from Seattle on Capitol Hill when someone came rushing in to tell them the president had been shot. He immediately drove to Hickory Hill, where he spent the rest of the afternoon with Bobby. By now, Kennedy family members were gathering at the Virginia estate. But Bobby was also surrounding himself with “brothers” like Guthman. The two men paced endlessly together, back and forth on the backyard lawn. “There’s so much bitterness I thought they would get one of us, but Jack, after all he’d been through, never worried about it,” Kennedy told Guthman.
“Bob said, ‘I thought they would get me, instead of the president,’ ” Guthman said, recalling the conversation years later. “He distinctly said ‘they.’”
Guthman and others around Bobby that day thought “they” might be coming for the younger Kennedy next. So apparently did Bobby. He was normally opposed to tight security measures, which he found intrusive and perhaps even a sign of cowardice — “Kennedys don’t need bodyguards,” he had said, even after he began receiving death threats as the crime-busting attorney general. But that afternoon, Kennedy allowed the Fairfax County police, who rushed to Hickory Hill after the assassination without being summoned, to protect his home. Later, the police were replaced by federal marshals, who encircled Kennedy’s estate after Guthman and other RFK aides spoke to Chief U.S. Marshal Jim McShane.
Bobby trusted McShane and his men. James Joseph Patrick McShane was a street-tough Irish New York cop. He had worked with Bobby as an investigator for the Senate Rackets Committee in the late 1950s and had served as bodyguard for JFK during the presidential campaign. He and his men had put their lives on the line in the civil rights battles of the South, saving Martin Luther King Jr. from a howling mob that had surrounded a church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was preaching in May 1961. The following year, McShane and his ragtag troops had again formed a thin, bloodied line in defense of James Meredith, the black student who set off a fiery white uprising when he enrolled at the University of Mississippi. McShane was “built like a tank, had the crushed nose of the Golden Gloves boxing champ he once was, and the puffy face of a man who enjoyed booze in his off-hours,” observed one chronicler of his exploits. As a New York cop, he had survived seven shoot- outs on the streets and received the NYPD’s medal of honor.
It’s telling that Bobby turned to McShane and his band of federal irregulars in his hour of dread, and not Hoover’s more professional G-men. Even when his brother was still alive, Bobby had learned that Hoover’s men could not be trusted in the administration’s most dire showdowns, like those in the South. Nor did he turn to the Secret Service for protection that day. He was already trying to fi gure out why the agency entrusted with the president’s personal safety had failed his brother.
With their youth, ambition, and deep sense of family entitlement, the Kennedys had come into offi ce confi dent they could take charge of the federal government and put it at the service of their cause. But on November 22, Bobby Kennedy immediately suspected something had broken inside the government and that his brother had been cut down by one of its jagged shards. In these hours of unknown danger, Bobby followed his old tribal instincts, turning not to the appropriate government agencies, but to the tight band of brothers whom the Kennedys had always most relied upon. None of the intensely loyal men gathered around Kennedy at his home that day knew if Bobby’s life too was now in danger. Nor did they know for certain in these fearful hours where the threat might come from or on whom they could depend. But they were sure that they could count on Jim McShane and his men to give their lives for the surviving Kennedy. He was one of them.
While McShane’s marshals staked out the front gate at Hickory Hill and fanned out along the perimeters of the estate, Bobby worked to put faces to the conspiracy that he suspected was behind his brother’s death — to find out who “they” were. No one knew more about the dark tensions within the Kennedy administration than he did. As President Kennedy struggled to command his government, clashing with hard-liners in his national security bureaucracy, he had given more and more responsibility to his brother Bobby. Among the items in the attorney general’s bulging portfolio were the CIA, which the Kennedys were determined to overhaul after the agency led them into the Bay of Pigs disaster; the Mafi a, which Bobby had declared war on, telling his fellow Justice Department crusaders that either they would succeed or the mob would run the country; and Cuba, the island nation around which raged so much Cold War sound and fury. When it came to administration policy on Cuba, Bobby was “president,” General Alexander Haig, one of the Pentagon’s point men on the issue, would later say.
The CIA, Mafia, and Cuba — Bobby knew they were intertwined. The CIA had formed a sinister alliance with underworld bosses to assassinate Fidel Castro, working with mob-connected Cuban exile leaders. Bobby thought he had severed the CIA-Mafia merger when the agency finally told him about it in May 1962. But he also knew the agency often defied higher authority. He would later describe CIA actions during the Bay of Pigs as “virtually treason.” It was this shadowy nexus — the CIA, Mafia, and Cuban exiles — that Kennedy immediately focused on during the afternoon of November 22.
After phoning Dallas, Kennedy made a call to CIA headquarters, just down the highway in Langley, Virginia, where he often began his day, stopping there to work on Cuba- related business and trying to establish control over the agency’s “wilderness of mirrors” for his brother. Bobby’s phone call to Langley on the afternoon of November 22 was a stunning outburst. Getting a ranking offi cial on the phone — whose identity is still unknown — Kennedy confronted him in a voice vibrating with fury and pain. “Did your outfit have anything to do with this horror?” Kennedy erupted. Whatever the anonymous CIA official told Bobby that afternoon, it did not put his suspicions about the agency to rest.
Later that day, Kennedy would take his question to the top of the CIA. John McCone, director of the agency, who was eating lunch in his Langley office when his aide Walter Elder burst in to tell him the news from Dallas. McCone immediately phoned Bobby, who told him to come right over to the house in McLean. McCone later recalled that he was with Bobby and Ethel in their second-floor library when Kennedy received the call telling him his brother was dead. “There was almost nothing we could say to one another,” recalled McCone. “We were seized with the horror of it.”
After he called his mother, Rose, and brother, Teddy, to tell them Jack was gone, a “steely” Bobby (as McCone described him) took the CIA chief outside to the backyard and engaged him in a remarkable conversation that would extend, off and on, for three hours that afternoon. The attorney general of the United States wanted to know whether the country’s intelligence agency had assassinated the president of the United States. Bobby would later tell a close friend, “You know, at the time I asked McCone…if they had killed my brother, and I asked him in a way that he couldn’t lie to me, and they hadn’t.”
Bobby’s remarks about his conversation with McCone have caused intense speculation. McCone, a fellow Catholic, shared a deep sense of faith with Bobby, as well as with Ethel, both of whom had consoled him after the death of his first wife. He once took a rosary ring that he carried around in his billfold for comfort to Rome, where he had a copy made and had it blessed by the pope as a gift for Bobby. Perhaps Kennedy made McCone swear to tell him the truth, as one devout Catholic to another.
In the days following the assassination, McCone would come to conclude that there had been two shooters in Dallas, in striking contrast to the official version of the crime as the work of a lone gunman, which was being ardently promoted by Hoover and the FBI. But there is no evidence that he ever came to suspect his own agency.
Bobby accepted McCone’s assurance about the CIA that afternoon. But he also knew that McCone, a wealthy Republican businessman from California with no intelligence background, was not in firm control of his own agency. Kennedy himself knew more about the spy outfit’s sinister exploits, including the Mafi a plots, than McCone did. His brother had replaced the CIA’s legendary creator, Allen Dulles, with McCone after the agency’s spectacular failure at the Bay of Pigs. But McCone never worked his way into the agency’s old boy network that dated back to its origins in the OSS during World War II. And there was a sense he preferred to be left in the dark on the more unpleasant stuff, that his religious principles would not countenance some of the agency’s black arts. Bobby would realize that while he had taken his question to the very top of the CIA, he had asked the wrong man.
The young attorney general had built his reputation, before and after coming to the Justice Department, on a relentless crusade to crush the power of organized crime in America, which he felt was threatening to take control of the country’s economy through corrupt labor unions like Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters as well as local, state, and federal government through payoffs to politicians, judges, and elected officials. While Hoover was still focusing on the empty shell of the Communist Party USA as public enemy number one, RFK was convinced that the true “enemy within” was a corporate underworld that was gaining the power to overshadow the country’s legitimate democratic institutions. “Of course it’s a different era now, maybe terrorism is a greater threat these days than organized crime,” said Guthman recently, sitting in his cramped office at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, where he still lectures. “But if you look at what has happened in South and Central America, you can see Bob was right to worry about organized crime taking over our country. Where would we be if he hadn’t recognized the power and importance of the Mafia and the rackets? This was a time when the chief of the FBI, Hoover, was saying there was no such thing as organized crime.”