My JFK moments

Sam Smith

In the summer of 1957, I covered a Senate investigation of the Teamsters Union. Among those seated at the long panel table was young John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts. His brother, Robert, served as a counsel for the committee. At one point, a prostitute witness made some off-color comment that brought guffaws from the audience; and Bobby’s own giggles were amplified by his mike. The humorless chair, John McClellan, rapped his gavel and told Kennedy that “This is not a joking matter.” It would be the only time I ever saw a Kennedy look chastened.

The testimony of Hoffa went like this:

Robert F. Kennedy: Did you say, “That S.O.B., I’ll break his back”?
Jimmy Hoffa: Who?
Kennedy: You.
Hoffa: Say it to who?
Kennedy: To anyone?
Hoffa: Figure of speech… I don’t even know what I was talking about and I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Kennedy: Uh… Mr. Hoffa, all I’m trying to find out, I’ll tell you what I’m talking about. I’m trying to find out whose back you were going to break.
Hoffa: Figure of speech… figure of speech.

Later, I wrote in a September 5, 1959 letter:

The Kennedy brothers — like the remark about the Quakers — came to Washington to do good and did very well. Jimmy Hoffa, who’s astute if corrupt, told me once in the midst of the rackets hearing, “Bobby Kennedy is trying to make headlines for his brother so he can get him to the White House, but he can’t find his way out of this room.”

It may be that what happened in that hearing room helped to lay the groundwork for Kennedy’s later assassination – if theories of a mob hit are true. Certainly Hoffa hated the Kennedys and Washington investigator author Ron Goldfarb wrote that in “August 1962, Hoffa recruited an aide to kill RFK. In February 1963, John Kennedy told Newsweek’s Ben Bradlee that Hoffa had recruited an assassin to kill the attorney general.”

Frank Ragano, long-time lawyer for both Santos Trafficante Jr. and Hoffa, wrote a memoir with NY Times reporter Selwyn Raab in which he recalled several conversations between the two mobsters:Trafficante:  Somebody is going to kill those sons of bitches. It’s just a matter of time.

Hoffa: Something has to be done. The time has come for your friend and Carlos [Marcello] to get rid of him kill that son of a bitch John Kennedy. This has got to be done. Be sure to tell them what I said. No more fucking around. We’re running out of time – something has to be done.

After JFK’s assassination, Ragano claimed that Marcello told him, “When you see Jimmy, you tell him he owes me, and he owes me big.”

And Trafficante thought they had got the wrong man: “We shouldn’t have killed John. We should have killed Bobby.”

Goldfarb quotes the brother of Sam Giacana as boasting, “We took care of Kennedy. The hit in Dallas was just like any other operation we’d worked in the past.” Writes Goldfarb: “Sam Giancana himself was murdered in 1975 just days before he was suppose to talk to the Senate intelligence committee about plots to kill Castro.”

He also notes that “Two biographies of leading mobsters report that Marcello exclaimed, ‘Don’t worry about that Bobby son of a bitch. He’s going to be taken care of ‘ According to one participant Marcello told his listeners he would recruit some nut to kill Kennedy so it couldn’t be traced to him, ‘like they do in Sicily.'” Marcello would later deny the quote.

If Goldfarb is right, then during my introduction to journalism, I not only interviewed John F. Kennedy but one of those responsible for his assassination.

As Goldberg – who went on to work for Bobby Kennedy and knew a lot about organized crime – wrote in a 2009 article for Daily Beast:

Drawing on incriminating tapped phone conversations, new literature and investigations, and Trafficante’s lawyer’s 1994 memoir (Frank Ragano’s Mob Lawyer), I concluded that the assassination was generated by Jimmy Hoffa. Oswald was, as he claimed, a patsy. It was a mob touch to use someone to carry out their deadly assignments, and then to kill that person to avoid detection.

Whatever happened, it would happen twice more in the next five years with the killings of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy, after whose death I wrote:The central point of the tragedies was not their proximate cause but rather that we, as a nation, had assigned so much of the burden of hope, progress, decency and faith to so few men.

Their deaths leave us shaken, fearful and alone because we had been so willing to share their vitality only vicariously. We permitted them to affirm for us rather than with us. Their stature was increased by our common weakness as much as by their individual strength. They were exceptions, when they should have been the best among many.

Photo by Hank Walker, Life Magazine.

 I interviewed JFK momentsafter he had announced he was running for president and later, in January 1961, made my only foray into the real world of network television. I was hired for Kennedy’s inauguration by CBS News as a news editor. Along with fellow WWDC newsman Ed Taishoff, I sat all day capped with a headset in a ballroom of the Hotel Washington , turning phone calls from CBS correspondents into stories then placed on Walter Cronkite’s personal news ticker. If there was one thing Ed and I knew, it was how to take news from callers, turn it into copy and get it on the air fast.

But when the calls weren’t coming in, I looked around the room and tried to figure out what the scores of CBS minions and executives were doing. As far as I could tell, Ed and I and a few people in front of dials and screens were doing most of the work. Yet we were badly out-numbered and underpaid by men in suits who tore around yelling and looking concerned or angry or wanting to know where something was. It all didn’t look like much fun and I think it was when I decided I didn’t want to be a network anchorman after all.

Meanwhile, the military draft was breathing down hard and the Coast Guard had accepted me for its officer candidate school.  My first assignment was as public information officer for the Second Coast Guard District, headquartered in St. Louis. I would explain that it was harder to guard the coasts in St. Louis, because on the Mississippi River there were two of them.

The Coast Guard was short on officers and so your list of collateral duties ran long, in my case two of them thanks to the newly elected John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy had noted during his inauguration parade the lack of any blacks in the Coast Guard Academy contingent and called our bosses at the Treasury Department the next day to seek a remedy. And so the word went forth, even to the federal building in St. Louis, to do something about it and I found myself, although the name hadn’t been invented in 1961, serving as the district’s affirmative action officer.

I was totally unsuccessful. St. Louisians of any ethnicity were disinclined to think that going out on any of the major oceans was a good idea for either themselves or their children. The black businessmen and civic leaders I addressed agreed and seemed to regard me as an agent of the devil when I described what a Coast Guard officer actually did and under what circumstances he often did it.

Kennedy had also declare the nation unfit and wanted the military to set an example for everyone else. And so I found myself assigned to run a physical fitness program for the hundred officers and men of the district headquarters. It all went somewhat better than the affirmative action effort, but in the end those who started out fit tended to stay fit while similar trends prevailed among the flabby. Being in charge of all this inertia did, however, inspire my own efforts and I pumped iron regularly in the dingy YMCA gym with that marvelous assortment (including my case a professional wrestler) one found in such places before fitness was defined by silly people in spandex jumping up and down and yelling faux encouragement at their bedraggled wards to the sounds of excessively loud rock.

Eventually I would end up as operations officer aboard the CG cutter Spar out of Bristol RI. In November 1963 we were assigned to take two 40 foot patrol boats to be used to guard John F. Kennedy when he was vacationing near there. At a flank speed of 15 knots it had taken us days to get down there and days to get back. I had the conn as we finally pulled up to the dock at Bristol with everyone anxious to go ashore.

We weren’t more than a hundred feet off when a crew member came out on the buoy deck below and called up to the bridge, “President Kennedy’s been shot.” I thought: what a stupid thing to say. I edged the ship up gently to the pier, got the lines properly secured and went below. Only then did I realize that it was true. Despite days away from home port, no one left the ship for three hours as we huddled around the mess deck television.

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