Robert Kennedy: Attorney General

The Attorney General of the United States is the top law enforcement officer, head of the Justice Department, and key adviser to the President.  Or, as the role originated in the Middle Ages, to advise the Crown on legal matters.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 set up the federal court system and provided for an attorney general. What started as literally a one-man job turned into a 30,000 department.

Robert Kennedy served as Attorney General from January 21, 1961 to September 3, 1964. He was the 64th Attorney General of the United States and appointed at just 35 years of age.

Serving as his brother’s Attorney General, RFK expanded the role of the AG beyond what his predecessors had imagined. It was a product of their close relationship.

Chris Matthews wrote in Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, that Kennedy saw his job as telling his older brother the truth, even if it hurt.  Kennedy had not wanted to be AG, he knew if would smack of nepotism and bring out the critics. It was their father that insisted on him for the job.

“Every time they have a conference, don’t tell me about who is the top adviser. It isn’t McNamara, the chiefs of staff, or anybody else like that. Bobby is first in, last out. And Bobby is the boy he listens to.” – Lyndon Johnson

Kennedy’s legal experience consisted of being an attorney in the Criminal Division of the Justice Department, attorney for the Hoover Commission, and counsel for several Senate Committees and Subcommittees.

One of the first things Kennedy did at Justice was recruit more minorities. Looking around, the only faces of color were in the custodial department. Kennedy was often chided about the lack of minorities at Justice, but his efforts to attract more law school graduates was slow to produce results. It wasn’t long before Kennedy became directly involved civil right battles between the federal government and state officials.

Civil rights seemed to be the most consuming issues for Kennedy at Justice.  Several key events put Kennedy on the world stage.  The Freedom Riders were groups that went to the South to challenge segregation.  Kennedy was drawn into providing federal protection, on a limited basis, in direct confrontation with state and local leaders in Alabama.  Kennedy also brokered the federal protection of Martin Luther King at a large church gathering in Mobile, as angry demonstrators surrounded the church looking for a violent confrontation.  Kennedy also ordered federal troops to ensure the admission of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi.  And then there was the incident at the University of Alabama with Governor George Wallace.

RFK and the federal government were criticized for being slow to act and not doing enough.  The use of federal marshals was only of limited help, out numbered in a very hostile areas.  The backlash from Southern Democrats, including those in Congress, was swift.  Federal action was at times slow, aimed at de-escalation and finding creative solutions.  The Kennedy Administration was trying not to “out kick their coverage,” a football term about managing their strategy for success.  Frankly, MLK scared the administration.  Talk of mass demonstrations, including the children, work stoppages and other actions caught the administration off-balance and unsure how to respond.  Hoover and others painted MLK as a communist and played up that rhetoric as they asked for wire taps on MLK’s phones.  Like he had done on so many others, Hoover was building a dossier on MLK.

RFK was much more engaged in front line civil rights battles than the President.  At Justice, Kennedy’s staff was not just enforcing civil rights legislation, they were proposing it, to try and negate state voting restrictions. According to Evan Thomas, author of Robert Kennedy: His Life, RFK not only had to battle the Jim Crow forces, and those in his own department who very much wanted to ignore this effort, but competing civil rights groups that confronted RFK with different agendas.

RFK was firmly against discrimination, but his pragmatic view about bringing real change, was tempered by the world of politics.  RFK was aware of actions he was being asked to take in the South would be used against his brother in meetings with the Soviet Union.  The Kennedys were already looking forward to the 1964 elections and the delicate alliance with Southern Democrats. They were already feeling the pressure. This pragmatism angered African-Americans who looked to the Attorney General for action, not talk. He assembled a group of 11 activists in 1963 at RFK’s home for a frank conversation about growing anger about the lack of meaningful change.  RFK got an earful, and they weren’t interested in hearing about the Kennedy Administration’s “greatest hits” on domestic policy.

When Medgar Evers was assassinated, RFK sat with Evers’ brother at the funeral, and gave Evers a card with his private number on it to call at any time, which he did.

“Somewhere in this man sits good, our task is to find his moral center and win him to our cause,” Martin Luther King, Jr.  RFK actually arranged bail, through union resources, for King after he was arrested in Birmingham.

RFK_speech_on_MLK
RFK in Indianapolis

It was RFK who had to tell a crowd in inner city Indianapolis, that King had died. Advised to not appear, out of concern for his safety, Kennedy took the stage and called for peace.

By the time of his death in June 1968, Bobby Kennedy was the most trusted white man in black America, according to author Larry Tye.

These were truly unusual times.

Civil rights and organized crime were top issues for Kennedy as AG, even though the FBI seemed more focused on fighting communism, bank robberies and other crimes.  According to Ronald Goldfarb, who would worked in organized crime section, staffing grew from a couple of lawyers to over 60.  RFK’s experience investigating corruption in labor unions, and battles with Jimmy Hoffa, warmed him up for a larger campaign. Additional IRS agents were hired with the mission of investigating and building cases against organized crime figures.  Kennedy used the Justice Department to break national crime rings of gambling, auto theft and loan sharking.  During this time period, Congress passed multiple crime bills focused on anti-racketeering and giving prosecutors additional resources in activities that crossed state lines including using communication methods to facilitate those crimes. RFK used testimony of organized crime figure Joseph Valachi in passing new legislation but also as a means of understanding how the Mafia functioned.  Valachi was first to testify about organized crime, changing it from theory to reality.

As Johnson remarked, RFK was a trusted adviser to his brother.  Cuba, Vietnam, domestic policy, and trying to keep his older brother out of trouble.  Hoover had evidence of the President’s earlier trysts with Judith Campbell, the girlfriend of mob boss Sam Giancana. RFK pushed the information to his brother before Hoover delivered in person.  Hoover, of course, wanted leverage against the new President.  The President distanced himself from Campbell and from Frank Sinatra, who was the common link between Kennedy and Giancana.

493cc76a02470f6875b6d561c7f123e9RFK had worked for Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s subcommittee, and was close to him personally.  McCarthy was a staunch conservative and Kennedy as his staff counsel carried water for the Chairman.  Kennedy also worked for Sen. John McClelland’s Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, basically investigating labor union hanky panky.  Kennedy was again criticized for the heavy-handed actions of the Committee.  McClellan, one of the 101 members of Congress who openly opposed the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision, was a conservative Democrat.  Kennedy surrounded himself with conservative members of his own party, which no doubt influenced his early views on civil rights.

Under Kennedy’s leadership, the Justice Department litigated 57 voting rights cases, opening southern polling booths to thousands of black voters, and assisted in ending segregation in interstate transportation and in integrating over 1,100 school districts. In 1963, RFK championed before Congress new civil rights legislation to guarantee access for all citizens to public accommodations, to accelerate desegregation of public schools, and to halt discrimination in all federally funded programs. – John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

prev15As AG, Kennedy used back channel communications with the Soviets during the Berlin Crisis of 1961.  Tensions were high and lead to a tank standoff between the Soviets and Americans.  The Soviets demanded Western forces withdraw from Berlin.  The resulting action was the construction of the Berlin Wall. On Cuba, RFK was again the pragmatist, keeping options open.

So, what kind of AG was Kennedy?  He was a man of the times.  If he carried into his job certain initiatives, they would include fighting communism and going after organized crime, two areas from his Senate counsel days. Communism came in the form of Vietnam and Cuba, two efforts that would define failures of the Kennedy Administration.

Kennedy was initially hawkish on American participation in Vietnam, in part from the intel and the flawed belief in the “domino theory” of Southeast Asia.  Once the war was put in the hands of Robert McNamara, America was stuck, and their was no safe way to disengage without giving ammunition to the Republicans in 1964. Naively, Kennedy believed in America being able to sidestep the defeat of the French in Southeast Asia, but quickly began to see Vietnam as a losing proposition.  Cutting bait before the next Presidential election was not going to do it.  Over the next several years, Kennedy would do an about-face on Vietnam, in part, because of McNamara’s emerging belief that U.S. could not defeat the North Vietnamese on the battlefield, and because of what he saw and heard as he traveled America.  McNamara would pass copies of his memorandums written for President Johnson onward to Senator Kennedy.

While the Cuban Missile Crisis was the thing of legends, the Bay of Pigs was a disaster, something the Kennedys had to own.  Bobby Kennedy would have to also own overtures with the mafia about the assassination of Castro, as when it was discovered there were secret training bases in Central America.  The amount of truth is debatable, but the desire to remove Castro, by any means possible, sticks the Kennedy Administration.

Kennedy found the Justice Department hamstrung on it’s fight against organized crime.  Much of the resources came from Hoover’s FBI, and that was not their priority.  Kennedy found other ways to jump-start the fight, and that involved legislation to give Justice more legal resources.  It wasn’t Kennedy that brought down Jimmy Hoffa or Sam Giancana, but the mafia stopped being a myth, and Valachi helped to paint the picture of it’s organization and operation.  Kennedy had to tell his brother to not consort with people associated with the mafia, and more than once, there were women suspected of connections with either the mafia or the Soviets.  Hoover was in the background collecting information on the President, which gave him leverage with RFK.

As AG, Kennedy will be mainly judged by enforcement of civil rights legislation and elevating this issue to a higher national priority.  My sense is that civil rights consumed more of Kennedy’s time than any other issue.  He worked late at night, weekend meetings at Hickory Hill, his home.  As AG, he personally called business owners to desegregate their lunch counters, hotels and other services.  He reached out to civil rights groups and worked behind the scenes to help them.  He made powerful enemies in the South, his name became even worse than Hoover, and there were personal threats.  He was well-aware of the need to hold onto voters in the South, but he stood up to those like George Wallace, when there was no other solution.  A white man, born in the North, of privilege, who had worked for conservative Democrats.  He evolved and got involved.  His respect by people of color was genuine.

“There are people in every time and every land who want to stop history in its tracks. They fear the future, mistrust the present, and invoke the security of a comfortable past which, in fact, never existed.” RFK

RFK would never have become AG without JFK as President; as it was, AG was not a job he had wanted, but he became very good at it.  The bugging of MLK will always be a blemish on his record.  Hoover pushed that agenda and later, RFK regretted going along with it.  The massive appeal of MLK and the energy for change frightened the establishment, particularly losing key Southern support.  Did that justify the action? Sitting here years later, it is easy to say, no.  Would any other administration have allowed such a thing? With Hoover as FBI director, yes.  Likely,  Hoover would have tapped phones without AG approval. These were times of extreme paranoia and actions that matched.  Less than a decade earlier, the nation was torn apart by the Red Scare. Nuclear combat with the Soviets was an ongoing threat.  The communist march was underway in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and 90 miles from Miami.

RFK had his faults, his temper was sometimes extreme. He could hold a grudge. The man had charisma and knew how to use it.  He was driven and out-worked anyone.  His expectations were that others worked as hard.  When he committed to something he was all in.  He lived by his sense of right and wrong, but his loyalty and feeling of obligation could cloud his actions. If he said he would do something, he did it.  He struggled with letting down his guard with strangers.  He felt honor.  He had an ability to connect with a crowd, or just one person.  He was fiercely competitive.

RFK stayed on the job for nearly a year after his brother was killed, although his relationship with Lyndon Johnson was difficult at best.  The tolerated each other, and RFK was very much a political rival than a subordinate cabinet member. Johnson refused to use RFK as his brother did, not wanting to raise his political profile.  This rivalry only intensified after Johnson was elected at a full term and RFK joined the Senate.

For a man with limited legal and leadership experience, he rose to the occasion and served his country as best he could.  He never shied from a battle, and there were many, bloody ones on his watch.  RFK was a man of principle, whether you agreed or not, he did not lead from behind the desk or in the rear, he rolled up his sleeves and was the first one through the door.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” RFK


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