Review: Kennedy Justice

Kennedy Justice

Kennedy JusticeVictor S. Navasky. New York: Open Road Media, 2013 (originally published in 1971).

Summary: A study of Robert F. Kennedy’s tenure as Attorney General and head of the Department of Justice during the John F. Kennedy and Johnson presidencies.

Several full length biographies of Robert F. Kennedy have been published including the classic by Arthur Schlesinger and more recent ones by Chris Matthews and Evan Thomas. This work looks at a four year period of Kennedy’s life, from 1961 to 1964 when he served as the Attorney General of the United States, heading up the Department of Justice. Victor S. Navasky, in a book originally published three years after Kennedy’s untimely assassination in 1968, explores the character of Kennedy’s leadership in this position, the focus of his efforts, and both his signal accomplishments, and shortcomings. Navasky uses phone transcripts, memos and correspondence, extensive interviews and research to give an indepth look at Kennedy’s years at the Department of Justice.

The first part, “The Code of the FBI” explores Kennedy’s relationship with the FBI, particularly in his efforts to fight organized crime and in the field of Civil Rights. This section explores the skill with which he was able to work with, and around J. Edgar Hoover’s self-protective agency. There was the delicate dance around bugging and wiretapping of crime families in which Kennedy believed only legal efforts were being pursued, and Hoover believed he had authority from the AG (and former AGs) to conduct these investigations. There was the refusal of the FBI to intervene in civil rights matters, but only to collect evidence, forcing Kennedy to mobilizing other DOJ attorneys and investigators to intervene, sometimes at great personal risk. The Department of Justice prosecuted record numbers of crime family members, protected Freedom Riders, defended voting rights, help pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964–and failed to change the way the FBI worked under Hoover.

Part Two, “The Code of the Ivy League Gentleman” looks at the incredibly talented group of people Kennedy surrounded himself with men like Burke Marshall, Nicholas Katzenbach, Louis Oberdorfer, John Doar, and Solicitor General Archibald Cox. It speaks highly of Kennedy, a University of Virginia law grad who gathers Harvard and Yale educated luminaries and inspires them to excellence. There was just one problem–the code of the Ivy League Gentleman. The belief was that calm, rational negotiation could resolve any problem, a belief shown to be flawed in Kennedy’s conversations with Governor Ross Barnett, when Kennedy was seeking to uphold legal rulings admitting James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. Ultimately it took the National Guard, because Kennedy and those around him misjudged their ability to move Barnett to action to protect Meredith. Similarly, the code that didn’t question ABA ratings in the appointment of southern judges led to the appointment of judges who perpetuated the structures of southern segregation. At the same time, Navasky chronicles the skilled way Kennedy works with the meticulous Harvard professor, Archibald Cox, who served as his Solicitor General.

The third part focuses on the “Code of the Kennedys” and how Robert Kennedy lived in the tension of family loyalty and integrity as the chief law enforcement officer of the country. Navasky illustrates this with the efforts Robert Kennedy engaged in to coordinate a humanitarian donation to Cuba in exchange for the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners. There was family honor to be upheld in securing the prisoner’s release, laws and regulations to be negotiated, and logistics to coordinate. RFK’s skilled work with the “honorary” Kennedys to cut through red tape accomplished a seemingly impossible exchange. At the same time, family political ties did not prevent RFK’s Department of Justice from prosecuting political corruption. Finally, there was the family vendetta against teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, done within the provisions of the law, yet devoting disproportionate resources to the effort that set questionable precedents for the department.

The book traces Kennedy’s growing commitment to civil rights and the eventual shift in focus from organized crime to civil rights during his tenure. It portrays an Attorney General skilled in the management of relationships and able to evoke excellence and energy in people who already came with high qualifications. Navasky portrays Kennedy as a man of high ideals who used his skills to tackle problems connected with the pursuit of those ideals, yet without a vision that looked beyond problems. Nowhere was this more apparent in his tolerance of Hoover’s entrenched leadership and non-cooperation.

So, why read a book on an Attorney General from more than fifty years ago? It reminds us of the vital role the Attorney General plays as the people’s attorney. It underscores the vital need that the AG, a presidential appointee, in this case, a presidential brother, is not the president’s lawyer but the people’s lawyer. It meant prosecuting political friends when those friends broke the law. It reminds us that justice is for all citizens, even when established party structures in the south are challenged by the series of voting rights cases filed by the Department of Justice. It also underscores the continuing tension of the relationship of the FBI to its parent department, the Department of Justice. How do you foster both the independence needed for impartial investigations, and the accountability and sharing of information that may be essential to national security? It seems this continues to be a challenge. Ultimately, however this is resolved, it must be in the service of “liberty and justice for all.”

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