A Kennedy the Bush administration can love

President Bush and John Ashcroft honor Bobby Kennedy as a tough-on-crime attorney general who fought "evil," but RFK's daughter cries foul.

Published November 22, 2001 1:48AM (EST)

The Sept. 11 attacks, and their aftermath, have managed to encapsulate the most dramatic tensions and terrors of recent U.S. history: There are echoes of the Cold War and perhaps its scariest moment, the Cuban missile crisis; of the debates over how to balance public safety and individual liberty that played out from the days of McCarthyism through the federal crackdown on organized crime to the end of the Civil Rights era. And of course there's shock and sorrow the nation hasn't seen since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

On Tuesday, President Bush presided over an august ceremony to name the Department of Justice building after the one man who was in the thick of every one of those moments: former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

The subject of the ceremony may have been the late great liberal hero, but terrorism was on everyone's mind -- and lips. In a speech that focused on honoring Kennedy's widow, Ethel Skakel Kennedy, who sat on the dais with him, Bush said that "America today is passing through a time of incredible testing. And as we do so, we admire even more the spirit of Robert Kennedy, a spirit that tolerates no injustice and fears no evil."

Added Attorney General John Ashcroft: Kennedy "led an extraordinary campaign against organized crime that inspires us still today in the war against terrorism. He was unafraid to call the enemy 'evil' and unapologetic about devoting all his resources, his energy and his passion to evil's defeat."

The subtext to the event was so obvious, it was hardly a subtext: As more questions are raised about the various and controversial methods the Bush White House is proposing or using in attempting to combat terrorism at home -- an omnipotent presidential war-crimes tribunal, a vast dragnet of Muslims and Arab-Americans, increased surveillance powers for the federal government -- Tuesday's event was not only a way to make nice and act bipartisan, embracing America's foremost liberal dynasty, but a way to tie the current, somewhat controversial crusade to the (mostly) righteous battles of the past.

It's a campaign that didn't start Tuesday.

"Robert Kennedy's Justice Department, it is said, would arrest mobsters for spitting on the sidewalk if it would help in the battle against organized crime," Ashcroft told the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Oct. 25. The former Missouri senator then pledged that his Justice Department would "use the same aggressive arrest and detention tactics in the war against terror," using "every available statute," "every prosecutorial advantage," and "all our weapons within the law and under the Constitution."

Hours before the Justice Department ceremony, however, in the Russell Senate Office Building where her "Uncle Ted" -- Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. -- works, one of Robert Kennedy's daughters, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, attacked Bush and Ashcroft's attempts to don the RFK tough-but-fair mantle. Cuomo chastised Ashcroft as going too far in infringing on civil liberties in the cause of rooting out terrorism.

While presenting a human rights award also in her father's name, Cuomo spoke to her 6-year-old daughter. "Cara, if anyone tries to tell you this is the type of justice your grandpa would embrace, don't you believe it." Cuomo said that her father's determination "was always tempered by his commitment to protecting civil liberties even when it meant letting the accused go free."

At the Justice Department later on, however, it was all smiles -- toothy, gleaming Kennedy smiles. It was an event most presidents dream of, with Kennedy's oldest son, famously liberal former Rep. Joe Kennedy II, D-Mass., turning to Bush and thanking him "for your kindness, for your generosity, and for the strong leadership you're showing our country today." Bubbling over with praise for Bush's leadership since Sept. 11, Joe Kennedy said he spoke on behalf of the entire dynasty, pledging that "we stand behind you and with you at this time."

Apparently disagreeing with his sister, the former congressman also made a flattering comparison between his late father and the president. His father, he noted, was sometimes called "too unyielding, too unwilling to compromise between right and wrong." Kennedy knew there was "a fundamental difference between good and evil and that evil had to be opposed. Like you, Mr. President."

Notably, Joe Kennedy also thanked Ashcroft "for standing up for what you believe in."

One other uncomfortable common subtext, which went unmentioned at the afternoon ceremony, was that Kennedy was one of this country's first victims of Arab terrorism, shot by Palestinian immigrant Sirhan Sirhan, an avowed enemy of Israel, after winning the California Democratic presidential primary in June 1968. During a trip to Israel in January 2001, Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Kennedy's oldest child, said that her father "was always a great supporter of Israel, and for that support he died."

During the primaries, Kennedy -- an ardent supporter of the Jewish state -- had promised a shipment of American jet aircraft for Israel. "Bobby said he would give them the jets and Sirhan somewhere cited that as another force that moved him to do what he did," Kennedy's primary opponent, Eugene McCarthy, recalled years later.

Five years after the Kennedy assassination, one of the demands of the Black September Palestinian terrorists who eventually killed the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and another American in 1973, was Sirhan's release. The group, which had also killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, was an arm of the Fatah organization headed by Yasser Arafat.

But it wasn't Kennedy's support for Israel that brought Tuesday's honor. From the beginnings of this crisis both Bush and Ashcroft have invoked Kennedy's aggressive pursuit of what first became widely known in 1962 as La Costa Nostra (or "our thing") -- the mob. In his first speech as attorney general a year before, Kennedy complained that "organized crime has become big business." And he set out about destroying it -- as Ashcroft aims to destroy terrorism.

"Let the terrorists among us be warned," the attorney general said grimly to the conference of mayors. "If you overstay your visas even by one day, we will arrest you; if you violate a local law, we will hope that you will, and work to make sure that you are put in jail and be kept in custody as long as possible."

While not quite spitting on the sidewalk, one Algerian pilot with suspected terrorist ties, for example, was arrested in London and charged with failing to report on his pilot's license that he had undergone knee surgery. At last official count, the government had detained 1,147 individuals in its post-9/11 dragnet, though it is unclear how many have been released. Among those, 185 detainees are being held on immigration charges, and an unknown number were arrested on material witness warrants.

Ashcroft has not only used "every available statute," he has sought new ones as well, including sweeping new wiretap and evidence-gathering authorities passed in the "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism" Act, with its handy USA-PATRIOT acronym. Other measures in the bill -- which passed the Senate 98-1 despite being vilified by civil liberties groups -- would allow law enforcement to search a home or an office without notifying a suspect beforehand because it could "seriously jeopardize" an investigation into terrorism.

These are the methods Kerry Kennedy Cuomo -- whose husband Andrew is running for governor of New York -- addressed. But her father also had his critics, as was clear earlier in the day at a White House press conference, when a reporter asked Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer if he "could better explain the president's rationale" for renaming the Justice Department building in honor of someone with a record of "certain abuses, including the wiretapping of Martin Luther King, abuse of the IRS, and so on."

History and hagiography have airbrushed over most of Kennedy's flaws, but they could be stark. He worked on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for notorious Commie-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy, R-Wis., later telling an interviewer, "at the time I thought there was a serious internal security threat to the United States; I felt at that time that Joe McCarthy seemed to be the only one who was doing anything about it. I was wrong."

While far more constrained than the USA-PATRIOT bill, the 1963 wiretap law then-Attorney General Kennedy favored was assailed by civil libertarians, too. And after initially resisting, Kennedy eventually permitted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to place wiretaps on King's home and work phones, whom Hoover suspected of being a Communist. Kennedy feared the FBI director for many reasons, not least among them the knowledge that he kept a dossier on President Kennedy's womanizing and his social ties to organized crime figures. A poignant 1967 Village Voice cartoon by Jules Feiffer featured "the Bobby Twins," one good and one bad. Good Bobby was a "courageous reformer" and a civil libertarian who sent troops down South to enforce civil rights; Bad Bobby "makes deals," "is a fervent wire tapper," appointed racist judges. "If you want one Bobby to be your president you will have to take both," the cartoon concluded, "for Bobbies are widely noted for their family unity."

But Good Bobby was the only one being spoken of today. Fleischer told the reporter that "as attorney general, Robert Kennedy successfully led the Department of Justice in important struggles that have come to symbolize the department's capacity to do good." Kennedy's work, Fleischer said, "whether it was against organized crime or for civil rights, stands out as singular achievements in American history."

These few moments of discord were almost welcome, given the incongruity of the ceremony. It featured both the Marine Corps band and a recording of the song "If I Had a Hammer"; ancient, white-haired, proud if feeble former deputy attorney generals from the Kennedy Justice Department and bright, spit-shined young Ashcroft aides; White House counsel Al Gonzales and images of Kennedy with Cesar Chavez; Karl Rove and David Halberstam; Reagan adminstration Attorney General Ed Meese and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

The first official proposal to name the building after Kennedy, in fact, came from Lewis, one of the fabled "Freedom Riders" who traveled on buses throughout the South in the early 1960s to assert their constitutional rights and combat Jim Crow laws. Lewis was one of the many Riders attacked by white racists -- and relatively unprotected by local Alabama law enforcement -- when Kennedy sent 500 federal marshals down to protect the buses.

But Lewis' 1997 proposal -- and subsequent efforts by Reps. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., and former Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla. -- went nowhere because of the opposition of one conservative Republican no one will name. Recently, in the Senate, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the chair and vice chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced the same bill. Then in late September Bush decided to accomplish by executive action what Congress hadn't been able to be complete in four years, and name the building after a liberal hero.

Thus Tuesday's magnificent bipartisan photo op and what Leahy called "a wonderful gesture" were one and the same, though skeptical reporters wondered about the real reasons for Bush's gesture. A source close to one of the myriad Kennedys in the room said "it was perceived to be a Karl Rove initiative," a reference to Bush's political advisor. "We're inclined to take it at face value," the Kennedy source said, smiling smugly, leaving the impression that everyone knows Rove doesn't even tie his shoes at face value.

Bush seemed moved, though sedate, except for one time his face turned red and he broke into a fit of laughter -- after Joe Kennedy reminded the group what Bush shared with the gathered Kennedy throng: The president, Kennedy noted, is "one of many accused of having traded in on a famous family name. We both know what that feels like, Mr. President."

Seemingly half the populace of Hyannis Port was present for the ceremony, though 15 minutes before it began, scattered Shrivers were the only ones visible. But soon Sen. Kennedy, the only surviving Kennedy brother, walked in, accompanying his sister, Patricia Kennedy Lawford, with Eunice Kennedy Shriver following behind him, and Jean Kennedy Smith behind her. A sea of brown shaggy hair followed -- RFK sons including environmentalist Robert Kennedy, Jr., Max and Doug and Sparky and Cooter and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, and a small army of teeny, tousle-haired fourth generation Kennedys at various stages of growing into their toothy jaws.

As the ceremony proceeded, there was one other odd, incongruous note, back at the Russell Senate Office Building: Small trace amounts of anthrax had been found in Sen. Kennedy's mailroom. A Kennedy spokesman, Jim Manley, said that the senator had been informed that there was no cause for concern, that the amounts were small and believed to have been residual from letters sent to Leahy and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "It's no risk to anyone's health," Manley said. "The staff does not have to be tested." Similar amounts of anthrax were found in the office of Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. It was perhaps one more reminder of the ephemeral nature of life. As if Kennedys -- or the rest of us -- need any more of those.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------