Commentary Magazine

Kennedy Justice, by Victor S. Navasky

Ultimate Politics

Kennedy Justice.
by Victor S. Navasky.
Atheneum. 508 pp. $10.00.

Most studies of political leadership, and virtually all studies of Presidential leadership, suffer from the egocentric fallacy—namely, the assumption that governance consists chiefly, if not entirely, of the confrontation between a personality and an issue which is resolved in a way that expresses some combination of the style of the former and the merits of the latter. Rarely, especially in those studies which acquire a large popular audience, is the personality placed in the context of the realities of an ongoing institution, the issue stated in ways that highlight its organizational as well as ideological implications, and the decision described so as to reveal both the elements of necessity and of choice, of drift and of mastery.

The memoirs of some of our more skillful political executives often give a better sense of the actual context of decision-making than any study by an outsider, which is perhaps one reason they are so rarely read and so frequently remaindered. The details, complexities, and subtleties of even ordinary decisions provide little opportunity for the pen to capture the bold phrase or the revealing moment.

Victor Navasky’s study of Robert F. Kennedy as Attorney General is as close as we have come thus far to a serious examination of the manner of governance of a member of that family whose style and legends have tended to obscure the question of whether or not any of them were very good at their jobs. Navasky attempts to place RFK in the context of a large institution and tries to explain and evaluate his behavior with respect, not so much to a few dramatic “crises,” as to the ongoing problems of managing a bureaucracy in a federal system faced with the challenges of a militant civil-rights movement, the continued menace of organized crime, the extraordinary opportunity to appoint a large number of federal judges, and the recurring questions of what issues to litigate and to what end. How the Justice Department behaved in these and other matters is, in Navasky’s view, to be explained by the interactions that occurred among the operating codes and political perceptions of the permanent bureaucracy (particularly the FBI), of the “Ivy League gentlemen” who constituted the command cadres of the department, and of Robert Kennedy himself.



In the rendering of accounts, Kennedy and his chief lieutenants receive high marks for the ransoming of the Cuban refugee brigade captured after the Bay of Pigs invasion and for helping persuade the Supreme Court to accept the one-man, one-vote principle in the reapportionment cases; they receive poor marks for their handling of James Meredith’s effort to enter the University of Mississippi, their failure to protect civil-rights workers in the South, their appointment of certain Southerners to federal district judgeships, the “Get-Hoffa” campaign, and (above all) their management of the FBI; they get mixed marks for their drive against crime (the drive itself is lauded, the use of wiretaps and the failure to regulate the use of electronic surveillance is criticized). Navasky concludes with no simple, summary judgment, but if the marks he awards can be added up, the account taken as a whole is more critical than complimentary, especially since Navasky judges most severely the handling of that subject—civil rights—which obviously is of greatest importance to him.

The analysis is subtle and intelligent, though not always complete (clearly, some informants talked more freely to Navasky than others, and in general those who talked the most tend to appear in the most favorable light); the evaluation, however, is based on a standard that for the most part is implicit rather than explicit.

If made explicit, I believe the standard would be this: politics is not the art of the possible, but the art of the desirable. To Navasky, political leadership is, or should be, the mobilization of maximum resources for the pursuit of ultimate objectives. Navasky approves every time Kennedy’s Justice Department appears to have done this—when in a matter of days it coordinated every relevant element of the federal government and the private sector to achieve the ransoming of the Bay of Pigs prisoners, or when it allegedly maneuvered Solicitor General Archibald Cox into supporting by stages the one-man, one-vote standard in the reapportionment cases. Navasky disapproves when Kennedy Justice failed to do this—when it did not give all-out protection to civil-rights workers in the South, did not use maximum force to place James Meredith into Ole Miss, and did not take complete control of the FBI to subordinate its operations in every way to the will of the Attorney General. Kennedy and his group were at their best, Navasky claims, when they operated as guerrillas on the bureaucratic landscape, ignoring forms and legalisms to achieve important objectives; they were at their worst when they failed to defeat “the system” or yielded to the values of the “Establishment.”



There is one conspicuous exception to this judgment—the “Get-Hoffa Squad.” Navasky leaves little doubt that Kennedy Justice launched an all-out effort to put Jimmy Hoffa in jail on any charge and by any legal means whatsoever. Though Navasky asserts there was no abuse of the law (such as by illegal electronic surveillance), he claims that there was an abuse of discretion—RFK in this case picked a person he thought he should get rather than a crime he thought should be prosecuted. All the Kennedy resources were mobilized: RFK did not hesitate, while Attorney General, to help plant an article in Life magazine critical of a man then under indictment by the agency RFK headed; and Stephen Smith, financial manager of the Kennedy family, did not hesitate to supply Walter Sheridan, former head of the Get-Hoffa Squad, with three thousand dollars to give to an informant whose testimony had helped convict a Hoffa lawyer. Navasky is of two minds about this issue. On the one hand, he writes that the “great achievement of the Kennedys, with their charismatic authority system, is that they were in many respects able to subvert the bureaucratic authority system that confronted them.” On the other hand, the “personalism and moralism” that was a necessary part of the “charismatic subversion” of administrative regularity “transmitted to succeeding Justice Departments the precedent for a Get-Dissenters Squad.” Navasky likes the idea of a Kennedy who can defeat “the system” but worries about the precedents created for the non-Kennedys who may come later. John Mitchell is not mentioned, but the implication is clear.

This is the central issue of the book, one Navasky recognizes but does not squarely confront. Navasky likes Kennedy-style “ultimate politics” and anti-bureaucratic guerrilla warfare directed toward the right ends, but who will govern the infiltrated land when the guerrillas have departed, and to what ends will the new campaigns then be directed? “Here is not the place to argue the virtues of spontaneous action versus the dangers of procedural irregularity, the virtues of federal self-restraint versus the dangers of unprotected individual rights, the virtues of effective results versus the dangers of defective procedures.”

But why not argue them here? More importantly, since they are argued by Navasky implicitly, why not argue them explicitly? The civil-rights episodes, together with the Hoffa incident, are the crucial cases. The account of RFK’s relations with Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi is illustrative both of the political problem and of the Navasky evaluative technique. In contrapuntal style, he alternates verbatim extracts of telephone exchanges between Kennedy and Barnett over the Meredith case with passages of his own prose that allege that Kennedy was “captured” by state and local “bureaucracies,” surrounded by “Ivy League gentlemen” who were prepared to “stand idly by when confronted by murder,” and that he became “bogged down” in a “philosophy of inaction” and “an ideology of impotence,” and was ready to “sacrifice civil rights to civil tranquillity.” Perhaps. Surely the civil-rights activists expected more protection from Justice than they got; possibly deploying the army instead of a small force of federal marshalls might have secured Meredith’s entry into Ole Miss with less difficulty; conceivably the Justice Department could have been actively involved in many more racial confrontations (there were twenty-three in sixteen states in one week of June 1963 alone). But in no case does Navasky argue the matter seriously: Barnett’s vacillations and deceptions are counterposed to assertions about the gullibility of the “Ivy League mentality,” but no detailed analysis of even the Ole Miss incident, to say nothing of the many other cases in which Justice was or should have been involved, is offered.

Nor is the political context adequately discussed. John F. Kennedy was not a widely popular President until after his murder; he had a narrow Congressional majority; in 1962 and 1963, it was no better than an even-money bet that he would win again in 1964. In the South, Navasky’s view that Kennedy Justice would go to almost any lengths to avoid a confrontation and that it had been “captured” by state and local bureaucracies will come as a surprise to the majority of Southerners who thought they were in a last-ditch fight with a Kennedy administration they hated and feared. It is not impossible to reconcile the perceptions of the South with the arguments of Navasky, but to do so requires a more careful and detailed analysis of what the administration both said and did on civil rights than is provided in this book. The crucial problem may be that the “charismatic style” not only overrides bureaucratic regularity, it creates popular expectations. To have and maintain such a style leads people—civil-rights activists as well as Southern conservatives—to believe, in hope or in fear, that great changes are impending and a new era dawning. Those who welcome what the style promises will be disappointed, even outraged, when in any particular case the action taken is routinely political rather than dramatically bold; those who fear it will believe that they are the objects of a hostile conspiracy even when little is in fact happening.

The point is best made in the book by Harold Fleming of the Potomac Institute, whose reflections on the civil-rights struggle are reported by Navasky:

Project yourself back to ’61 or ’62. There was a totally unjustified euphoria. The climate of expectation was created not by Kennedys with an intention to deceive, but by the ethos of the moment. . . . We were all unsophisticated about power. We thought it was there to be used. This was exciting. We didn’t know about the inhibitions of power. . . . Everybody overestimated the capacity of the Administration to intervene in an unlimited way. And everybody underestimated the prospective need for intervention. The sense of betrayal which came later was the inevitable hangover from the binge.

Navasky is at his best when he patiently unravels complex factual issues—the wiretapping and bugging of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (RFK authorized the former but not the latter) and the decisions to prosecute former Harvard Law School Dean James Landis for tax evasion and a former New York judge for bribery. What one learns from these accounts is that, in addition to the singleminded, relentless RFK who sent Ralph Ginzburg to jail for circulating obscenity or Jimmy Hoffa for corrupting jurors, there was the RFK who allowed, when the moral issue seemed less clearcut or the right act less unambiguous, the Justice Department to drift and the control of events to slip from his hands. In these cases, as well as in civil rights, the legend of Kennedy “vigor” (or, to their enemies, “ruthlessness”) suffers significantly when viewed in light of the facts. We gain in exchange a better understanding of how an important government agency behaves in times of crisis.



About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

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