Reconsidering RFK

Kennedy Justice

by Victor S. Navasky
Atheneum, 482 pp., $10.00

Robert Kennedy
Robert Kennedy; drawing by David Levine

Liberal tradition requires neutral justice: prosecution with equal vigor, and by the same means, of gamblers, mayors on the take, racist governors, corrupt union bosses, and violent leftists. Radicals do not expect this kind of neutrality: they try to hold the State to its constitutional promises of free assembly, free expression, and equality. By both liberal and radical criteria, Robert Kennedy failed as Attorney General. The Kennedy Justice Department prosecuted selectively, by un-liberal and illegal means. It paid scant attention to the possibilities of federal power in aid of civil rights, and developed the array of legislative, judicial, and prosecutorial tools now turned against the left with such effect.

In spite of Kennedy’s failure, liberals and radicals continue to venerate and excuse him. Regrettably, Victor Navasky excuses most of the Kennedy record and praises much of it. “Regrettably,” because Navasky has assembled valuable documents and interviews about the Kennedy years at Justice. His use of this evidence is another thing altogether.

Navasky acknowledges that Robert Kennedy did not always live up to his (and his brother’s) promises—no more than his brother did—and at times betrayed constitutional principles. He attributes these failings principally to the FBI’s power to frustrate RFK’s plans; to RFK’s Ivy League bias toward a federalist, go-slow approach to civil rights; and to RFK’s combative, deeply moral sense, which (according to Navasky) led him into the crusade against James Hoffa. Throughout the book, there are other, smaller apologies: RFK did not know about the illegal electronic surveillance that went on during his tenure; he faced a hostile Congress; he had no basis for knowing that great federal force would be needed to extend civil rights in the South; his legislation on organized crime and his prosecution tactics were perhaps necessary to combat the threat of the Mafia; his pursuit of Hoffa pitted a moral zealot against a cheap crook. Of Bobby’s early service as counsel on the McCarthy committee, Navasky says that it “was nothing to be ashamed of.”

The result of all Navasky’s apologies and of his “on the other hand” praise is a misinformed and misinforming book. Let us look at the Kennedy record.

In the field of civil rights, RFK was largely responsible for the appointment of a number of racist judges to the federal bench in the South. The 1961 Judiciary bill gave John Kennedy the power to pick seventy-one judges to fill newly created vacancies. As Attorney General, RFK cleared for judicial appointment such prizes as Harold Cox of Mississippi, who, from the bench, referred to black litigants as “niggers” and “chimpanzees.”

Even with a recalcitrant federal district bench in the South, however, RFK had no excuse to take so little action on civil rights. The black movement intensified its direct action tactics in 1961, the first sit-in having taken place just one year before JFK’s inauguration. Patently unconstitutional laws against picketing, leafleting, and…

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