Robert Kennedy, Unlikely New Hero of the Right Wing

Fact & Fiction
tags: George W. Bush, RFK, Kennedys

Mr. Palermo is the author of In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia University Press, 2001).

In the past two months there has been the emergence of glowing admiration for the legacy of Robert F. Kennedy emanating from some conservative Bush Administration officials and their allies in the media. Two months ago, Bill O’Reilly, the cantankerous right-wing anchor of the Fox News channel’s The O’Reilly Factor, wrote in an article that Robert F. Kennedy stands as his all-time favorite politician. More recently, Attorney General John Ashcroft, the ultra-conservative former senator from Missouri, claimed he too looked to Kennedy for inspiration and modeled his prosecutorial strategies after those Kennedy initiated when he ran the Justice Department from January 1961 to September 1964. Both O’Reilly and Ashcroft have pointed to Kennedy’s tenacity, dedication, and work ethic as the qualities they admire most. Unfortunately, they both have ignored Kennedy’s politics.

I have spent years researching and writing about Kennedy’s political career, culminating in my recently published book, In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia University Press, 2001). I welcome this renewed interest in Kennedy’s life and career coming from prominent figures in our national political discourse, but I must point out that there is a glaring problem with high-ranking government officials and pundits who strongly identify with the Republican Party appropriating Kennedy’s legacy for their own purposes. If O’Reilly and Ashcroft really wanted to learn from Kennedy’s legacy, they should both look more closely at what Kennedy actually did and said. They would soon find out that Kennedy, if he were alive today, would have far more in common ideologically with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party (or even Ralph Nader) than he would with the current crop of Republican leaders who have shifted the center of American politics far to the right in the recent years. Kennedy was a confrontational Democratic partisan who could alienate moderate and independent voters with his tough stands on core Democratic Party values relating to the rights of workers, civil rights, social safety net legislation, poverty, and, most importantly in the current context, protections against unlawful search and seizure. Ashcroft and company are impressed with Kennedy’s work ethic as Attorney General, but they are out of touch with the motivating force that animated Kennedy and drove him to work so hard.

When Kennedy headed the Justice Department he promoted federally funded voter registration drives for African-Americans in the Deep South; he prodded the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover (whom he loathed) to get off its duff and start pursuing organized crime, which Hoover claimed did not exist in America. Hoover was subsequently humiliated when Kennedy proved him wrong about the organized crime. In 1963, Robert Kennedy was the only member of the President John F. Kennedy’s Cabinet to push for the passage of an omnibus Civil Rights Act, which provided the foundation for the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Kennedy also supported active federal intervention on a host of social maladies that would be anathema to today’s Republican leaders such as money for the prevention of juvenile delinquency in the inner cities, federally financed legal aid for the poor, the restriction of the search and seizure powers of law enforcement officers, and the rights of poor people to sue municipalities for police brutality.

Kennedy refurbished and strengthened the Civil Rights Division, which had become moribund after 8 years of Republican control under the Eisenhower Administration. He promoted racial diversity in the formally all white Justice Department and appointed the largest number of African Americans to serve in any federal department up to that time. He stringently enforced laws protecting workers’ right to organize trade unions and to strike against employers. Indeed, part of Kennedy’s zeal to fight organized crime stemmed from his belief that gangsters were exploiting ordinary dues-paying rank in file members of labor unions. Kennedy consistently showed both during his time as Attorney General, but especially during his Senate years (1965-1968), that he had a deep seated commitment to the “little guy,” to the underdog. In my view, no one in the current Bush Administration, including John Ashcroft, has shown a similar concern for the downtrodden.

Furthermore, unlike Ashcroft and his assistants, Kennedy viewed the law as a social construct that did not necessarily guarantee justice. He understood, as did Martin Luther King, Jr., that there existed an endemic racism in the American legal system. For example, in August 1965, following the Watts Riot in Los Angeles, Kennedy said that the Law for an African American in the South “has meant beatings and degradation and official discrimination; [and the] law has been his oppressor and his enemy.” For black people outside of the South, Kennedy said the Law, although less overtly oppressive, still did not protect blacks “from paying too much money for inferior goods” or “from having their furniture illegally repossessed,” or “from having to keep lights on the feet of children at night, to keep them from being gnawed by rats”; nor did the legal system, in Kennedy’s view, “fully protect their lives – their dignity – or encourage their hope and trust in the future.” Can anyone imagine Attorney General Ashcroft making such an observation?

In November 1967, to the flag-waving warriors of the Vietnam Era, Kennedy, on national television, said the following: “We are killing South Vietnamese, we’re killing children, we’re killing women, we’re killing innocent people because we don’t want to have the war fought on American soil, or because they’re 12,000 miles away and they might get to be 11,000 miles away.” In the same interview, Kennedy pointed out that there were “35,000 people without limbs in South Vietnam [and] 150,000 civilian casualties every year.” A few months later, regarding American society as a whole, Kennedy said that the economic yardstick of the Gross National Product “counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our streets of carnage. It counts the special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of natural wonder to chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and television programs which glorify violence to sell toys to our children.” Before Bill O’Reilly and John Ashcroft claim Robert F. Kennedy as a kindred spirit, they should acquaint themselves with the totality of his record and the motivating force behind his zeal and diligence. If they do so, they will most likely become horribly disappointed with their newest hero.

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Jo - 8/24/2003

hell yeah