In “The liberal hero even conservatives could relate to” [Outlook, July 24], a review of Larry Tye’s book “Bobby Kennedy,” Joe Scarborough recalled a speech I gave in 2001 in which I criticized the George W. Bush administration for invoking Robert Kennedy’s name when attacking civil liberties.
In the name of national security, the Bush administration launched the “total information awareness program,” undermined the Whistleblower Protection Act, engaged in domestic spying, undermined attorney-client privilege, allowed unfettered government access to pharmaceutical and library records and other personal information of Americans accused of no crime, supported legislation that would have encouraged neighbor to spy on neighbor (or plumbers to spy on clients) a la the Stasi, targeted immigrants, demanded that 5,000 Muslim men accused of no crime “voluntarily” report to police, detained U.S. citizens and greatly expanded the use of military tribunals in which the accused could be sentenced to death with no access to the evidence used against them.
I stand by my assertion that these were not consistent with Kennedy’s values.
As our nation’s lead prosecutor facing the terror of organized crime, Kennedy was determined to use the law to bring criminals who threatened our country to justice. But that eagerness was always tempered by his commitment to protecting civil liberties, even when it meant letting the accused, such as Jimmy Hoffa, go free.
As attorney general at the height of the civil rights movement, Kennedy was keenly aware of the capacity for overzealous or corrupt law enforcement officials to abuse the awesome power of the law. He took that conviction on his travels around the world and criticized governments that invoked national security to suspend civil liberties.
As far back as 1948, Kennedy wrote articles criticizing Britain’s mistreatment of Jews in Jerusalem. He was the first international leader to criticize Indonesia’s massacre of communists. He traveled to South Africa in 1966 when few had heard of apartheid. He made a point of meeting with government critics from Japan to Brazil. He often quoted John Winthrop and said we should be a beacon on a hill for those who believed in democracy and human rights.
Scarborough gave credence to Tye’s oft-repeated thesis that Kennedy fundamentally changed from a rabid right-winger to the ultimate liberal. Instead, I believe my father is more clearly seen through the prism that defined the entirety of his life, as top aide Jack Rosenthal suggested: “Get your boot off his neck.”
Kerry Kennedy, New York
The writer is president of the nonprofit
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.