History Lessened

History Lessened

Attorney General John Ashcroft misunderstands Robert Kennedy's legacy–and my book.


A little learning, the old adage has it, can be a dangerous thing.

Example: US Attorney General John Ashcroft's speech at the US Conference of Mayors.

His message: "Forty years ago, another Attorney General… Robert F. Kennedy, came to the Department of Justice at a time when organized crime was threatening the very foundations of the Republic. Mobsters controlled one of the nation's largest labor unions [the Teamsters]. Racketeers murdered, bribed and extorted with impunity….

"Then as now, the enemy that America faced was described bluntly and correctly as a conspiracy of evil. Then as now, the enemy was well financed, expertly organized and international in scope. Then as now, its operations were hidden under a code of deadly silence.

His theme: "Attorney General Kennedy made no apology for using all of the available resources in the law to disrupt and dismantle organized crime networks. Very often prosecutors were aggressive, using obscure statutes to arrest and detain suspected mobsters. One racketeer and his father were indicted for lying on a federal home loan application. A former gunman for the Capone mob was brought to court on a violation of the Migratory Bird Act. Agents found 563 game birds in his freezer, a mere 539 birds over the limit.

His conclusion: "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…. It has been said that that was an effective policy, and I believe it was."

He then cites an unnamed "author" who "chronicled" Robert Kennedy's Attorney Generalship in support of his contention that the moral of this cautionary tale is that all sorts of freedoms and civil liberties will have to be sacrificed in any serious and effective war on terrorism.

At first I thought I might be the anonymous author to whom he referred, because I am indeed the author of Kennedy Justice*, a book about Robert Kennedy's Attorney Generalship, and I reported his use of the home loan mortgage applications and the Migratory Bird Act to "get" gangsters. But I also reported that the Migratory Bird Act conviction was eventually overturned, because it involved an illegal search and seizure. Ashcroft forgot to mention that, and he also neglected my larger point–that while Kennedy was indeed an effective Attorney General, his "Get Hoffa" squad and a number of his actions in the course of his war on organized crime lent themselves to easy abuse and were dangerous precedents for the future.

So much for the Attorney General's history lesson. Since September 11 our government has secretly rounded up and detained more than 1,000 people. Under the new antiterrorism law Ashcroft has not been required to tell us who they are, why they have been picked up, what their status is.

What is doubly distressing, however, is that the Attorney General's misreading of Robert Kennedy's Attorney Generalship was followed days later by the announcement that the President had signed a new executive order allowing the White House or a former President to veto release of presidential papers. This means that scholars and reporters as well as subsequent historical actors will be deprived of the raw materials that might help unlock the true lessons of our past. Taken together, the Attorney General's history lesson and the President's executive order suggest an unfortunate contempt for history.

The philosopher George Santayana famously observed that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. In this case we appear to have an Administration determined to distort it or, in the alternative, to withhold it.

*  Now available from iUniverse.com, under the aegis of the Authors Guild.

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