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December 31, 2005

Perspective

Posted by Nicholas Beaudrot of Electoral Math

Bar none, the best Christmas present I got this year was a copy of Robert Kennedy: His Life by Evan Thomas. And while I'm still a big fan of Bobby Kennedy, he's starting to make George W. Bush look like a civil libertarian.

During his tenure as attorney general, RFK routinely authorized the wiretapping of telephones and "bugging" of households and hotel rooms, all without a warrant. These wiretaps recorded domestic calls, and the FBI's bugs taped the personal conversations of their targets. Most of the time, the Feds were  monitoring mobsters like Sam Giancana -- the Chicago boss who replaced Al Capone -- but they also kept a close eye on such subversives as Martin Luther King and several of his aides. In some cases, particularly with King, Kennedy seemed to request the wiretap only for the purpose of obtaining knowledge of King's planned act of civil disobedience, and not for any legitimate law enforcement purpose. He also spent much of his spare time figuring out how he could get the CIA to overthrow and/or "eliminate" the Castro regime in Cuba.

In Kennedy's defense, the fourth amendment implications of wiretapping and bugging were not yet settled, and in many cases he authorized the wiretaps to placate Hoover, who used the FBI to gather intelligence he later used to threaten RFK, JFK, and many others with blackmail. Still, Kennedy's biography provides a great deal of perspective on how far we've come as a country. It's easy to think that under President Bush, our civil liberties, the environment, the rule of law, and unchecked executive power are more threatened now than they ever have been. But forty years ago, there was no EPA; the Warren Court had yet to establish Miranda and many of its other cases constraining police powers; and no one really seems to have thought twice about the way wiretapping might interact with the fourth amendment. For that matter African-Americans were completely disenfranchised rather than partially so, and efforts to integrate all-white colleges in the South resulted in actual riots that make the WTO protest of 1999 look like childs play. Now, that's not a reason to stop trying to improve the situation, and I think the biggest scandal in this whole snoopgate bruhaha is that FISA pretty clearly says "the United States shall not engage in X" and a fair reading of what the President has done shows that he has engaged in X, but in terms of the real, physical consequences of a President's actions, there have been much more serious consequences in the country's recent past.

December 31, 2005 in History | Permalink

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Comments

Another very, very good book to read is Kennedy Justice, by Victor Navaski, which focuses on RFK's tenure as Attorney General.

You don't mention if RK:HL cites it, but there's supposed to be an infamous quote by Bobby in response to someone asking about the legality of wiretapping mob figures: "F*ck legal." So, yeah, he wasn't operating in a time when the legal issues were entirely untracked wildernesses.

Most of us who loved him, and mourn him still, love and mourn the man he became after JFK's death - though I'll tell you, the Democratic Party could sure use some Ruthless Cannonball Bobbys.

Posted by: CaseyL | Dec 31, 2005 1:19:13 PM

Mmm... It's always nice to take a step back and see the big picture.

Posted by: TheDeadlyShoe | Dec 31, 2005 1:22:48 PM

That's a great glass-half-full argument. It also makes me realize what is at stake, since we must fight even harder to make sure that this country doesn't move backward.

Posted by: Pepper | Dec 31, 2005 2:34:06 PM

Good point, Pepper. The other thing to note is that hysterics aside, I think it's pretty clear that the threat from Communism, which controlled a sizeable portion of the world's economy, is much much larger than the threat from terrorism/violent extremism/radical Islamicism/whathavevyou, which controls a much smaller amout of resources.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Dec 31, 2005 6:03:52 PM

Having met Evan Thomas and had the opportunity to ask him a few questions, I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him.

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