RFK's years at Justice unworthy of honor

November 29, 2001|By Gus Russo

WASHINGTON -- The recent naming of the Justice Department building in Washington after the late Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy came about so suddenly that there was no time to debate the wisdom of such a proclamation.

Although the media have been quick to point out the contradictions inherent in a conservative Republican president honoring a liberal Democratic icon, the swiftness of President Bush's executive order has all but negated a serious discussion about the aptness of such a memorial.

Without doubt, all Americans with a modicum of sensitivity sympathize with the tragic losses suffered by the Kennedy family.

However, one assumes that the federal government could dispassionately consider the factual merits of candidates for building naming.

For although RFK went on to become a champion of the underprivileged in his post-Justice years, his brief tenure at the agency's helm was controversial at best.

Kennedy is remembered as the most energized (some say ruthless) attorney general in U.S. history, a tireless foe of lawbreakers. That was the ostensible Bush rationale for the decision to so name the building.

In truth, Kennedy was a man known even by his admirers to have seen the world in black and white.

Upon assuming office, Kennedy quickly set his prosecutorial sights on the most obvious straw targets -- organized crime and its supposed liaison to the work force, Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa.

In his zeal, Kennedy played fast and loose with the Bill of Rights while neglecting the much more weighty problem of white-collar crimes such as environmental pollution, bank fraud, price fixing and willful corporate neglect (tobacco, auto safety, toxic waste, etc.)

And when he wasn't busy pursuing gangsters, RFK, the overwhelming evidence shows, spearheaded ad hoc operations aimed at assassinating Cuban President Fidel Castro.

For all the legal might leveled at his targets, Kennedy saw few successes. Although many low-level hoods were collared, the only "boss" Kennedy removed was New Orleans' Carlos Marcello. And that was only accomplished through an illegal kidnapping and deporting of the Mafioso.

Kennedy's lack of first-tier convictions was not for want of trying. He oversaw more than 800 wiretaps and "bugs," many of which were ruled inappropriate by the courts after Kennedy's departure. (When FBI agents were chastened by President Lyndon B. Johnson for planting the bugs, Kennedy hung them out to dry, denying any knowledge of the operations, much as he denied knowledge of the Castro plots, thereby allowing the press to crucify the CIA.)

RFK also signed the wiretap order against Martin Luther King, although Kennedy's boosters claim Kennedy acted only under pressure from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Not all post-Kennedy ruminations have glossed over his shortcomings. When the Senate investigated the CIA in 1975, it was fed the cover story that Kennedy only coincidentally discovered the Castro assassination plots. Even so, the committee's report concluded that Hoover's and Kennedy's failure to stop the plotting amounted to "a dereliction of their duties."

Regarding Kennedy's "Get Hoffa" squad, even Bobby's own organized crime sachem, William Hundley, had misgivings. "For some reason, Kennedy really hated Hoffa," Mr. Hundley wrote recently. "Robert Kennedy had a great capacity for love, but he also had an equally great capacity for hate. ... He had a win-at-any-cost attitude."

Perhaps the strongest critic within Kennedy's Justice Department was former Assistant U.S. Attorney Sidney Zion. Now a syndicated columnist, Mr. Zion recently wrote that "there was never an attorney general who more violated the Bill of Rights. It was Bobby who took this country into eavesdropping, into every violation of privacy ever feared by the Founders."

If America chooses to celebrate Robert Kennedy, surely we can find better examples of his public service than his stewardship of the Justice Department. What is clear is that the current administration needed to co-opt the worst aspects of Kennedy to inspire the troops on the war on terrorism.

Gus Russo is an author and investigative reporter. His next book, The Outfit: The Role of the Chicago Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America (Bloomsbury), will be released in April.

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