You probably have seen the stories remembering Robert Kennedy on the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination. He was only 42. He already had been a Senate committee investigator, the U.S. attorney general, and a senator from New York. He had managed his brother’s senate and presidential campaigns and was his closest adviser in the White House. Bobby Kennedy was running for president when he was shot in Los Angeles.
We thought it would be interesting to look back at some of his ties to Nevada.
Kennedy had worked for Senator John McClellan’s committee investigating labor racketeering. He attacked Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters, who had organized crime ties and connections to Nevada. Then RFK became his brother’s campaign manager. At the 1960 convention, Bobby worked to get Nevada’s delegates for JFK. In 1958, when Grant Sawyer ran for governor of Nevada, the Kennedys and their allies had supported him in the primary. He wanted to return the favor. Sawyer later recalled how RFK “came to my room pleading for the Nevada votes for his brother.” JFK didn’t get all of Nevada’s votes, but he did win the nomination.
In the general election, RFK ran the national campaign, and he was even involved in Nevada. He made the final decision on who would be state chairman. Just a few days before the 1960 election, RFK called that chair, Ralph Denton, and asked how Esmeralda County was going to vote. Denton asked why Kennedy cared. Bobby replied that Esmeralda County had voted for the winning candidate in every presidential election for decades. Denton checked, and his sources said JFK would carry the county. He did and he became president, though there WERE some other factors involved.
Then Bobby Kennedy became attorney general, and his relations with Nevada became sour. In the summer of 1961, Nevada’s attorney general, Roger D. Foley, received a request from Kennedy’s Justice Department to deputize 65 federal agents to raid Nevada casinos to go after the mob. Foley told Sawyer, and off they went to Washington. According to Sawyer, when Bobby Kennedy came into the office, “we had a heated discussion, to say the least.” Sawyer felt it was wrong on legal grounds: Nevada had been trying to work with the Justice Department and Sawyer felt Kennedy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover hadn’t been cooperating. Sawyer also objected on political grounds: Nevada had gone for JFK and didn’t deserve this treatment. Sawyer also said, “As a personal matter I was particularly offended, because I got the impression that Bobby looked upon me as someone who had just stepped out from behind a crap table; and he seemed to imply that I was connected with the mob, which really burned me up. I remember pounding the table and just feeling that I was making no progress with him at all.”
Next day, at the White House, Sawyer got the impression that John Kennedy hadn’t known about his brother’s plans. He said JFK was noncommittal, but the raid never happened. Still, Sawyer permanently soured on Bobby Kennedy. He later attacked both him and the FBI’s Hoover over illegal wiretaps in Nevada casinos.
A politician who knew the Kennedys once described JFK as the first Irish Brahmin and RFK as the first Irish Puritan. Some of that apparently came out in Bobby Kennedy’s relationship with Nevada. How might it have changed? It’s too bad we never got the chance to find out.