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Kennedy Justice Hardcover – June, 1971
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
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About the Author
Victor Navasky is the author of Naming Names, which won an American Book Award, and of Kennedy Justice, a National Book Award Nominee. He is the co-editor of The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation. For many years the editor of The Nation and then its publisher, Mr. Navasky is the Delacorte Professor of Magazine Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He formerly worked as an editor at The New York Times Magazine, and he regularly contributes to many journals of opinion. He has served as a Guggenheim Fellow and a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. He currently sits on the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists and on the Council of the Authors Guild. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Navasky's goal with Kennedy Justice is to focus on the powers and limits of the office of Attorney General under Robert Kennedy. Navasky argues, with reason, that RFK was in a unique position to take advantage of his office because of his unique relationship with President JFK. Navasky's approach is unique in focusing not just on this period of RFK's life but also focusing so narrowly on his performance as Attorney General. Unlike many books about the Kennedys, Navasky keeps his promise and his focus. This book doesn't devolve into a general biography of RFK.
Navasky does an outstanding job portraying bureaucratic politics. He gets into the minutiae of how RFK managed - or failed to manage - the FBI and civil rights. Navasky shows how an exchange of particular memos or telephone calls had profound implications for Kennedy's ability to rein in J. Edgar Hoover. For example, Hoover used memoranda on wiretapping and bugging to implicate RFK in condoning those activities. Navasky also uses extensive quotes or transcripts from calls, memos, etc to convey the day-to-day activities of the Kennedy Justice Department. This allows Navasky to provide a more nuanced and realistic look at government administration than most books about the Kennedys, which tend to focus on the drama or personalities involved.
The extent to which the FBI obstructed Justice Department investigations and attempts to enforce civil rights is downright shocking. While many other books have been written about the FBI, Navasky does a particularly good job trying to understand the institution. Navasky likens the FBI under Hoover to a secret society, which might sound extreme but actually works quite well as an analogy. Navasky is very through in his exploration of reasons for the FBI's - and, by extension, Hoover's - intransigence.
The book is on shakier grounds when assessing the motivations of Kennedy's staff. Navasky attempts to figure out why RFK did not exert more control over Hoover. He tends to conclude that RFK simply conceded to bureaucratic realities and thought compromise would yield better results. However, there are later allegations that RFK worried Hoover had compromising information about JFK's sexual exploits. There is also relatively little exploration of the political deal-making and electoral politics that often influenced RFK's ability to enforce civil rights in the South. This certainly doesn't undermine the book's credibility, but readers should be aware that Navasky could not always tell the full story (partly due to the lack of information at the time he was writing).
Given that the book was initially written during the early 1970s, I wish this new edition had an editor's note or even new chapters putting Navasky's work in context. I have read several books about RFK but admit I did not focus on the issues discussed in Kennedy Justice. I don't have a good sense of how research during the past four decades has influenced our understanding of Kennedy's tenure as Attorney General. To my knowledge, Navasky's Kennedy Justice is still the only book focused exclusively on this aspect of RFK's life, but I can't imagine we haven't learned anything new during the interim.
For some readers, this lack of modern context might prove even more of a hinderance to appreciating the book. Navasky assumes most readers will know the basic history of the early 1960s, including key figures such as George Wallace. That's probably fair for most readers, but be aware that this is not a book for beginners. Navasky does not spend much time introducing periphery characters or events. We don't beta 50 page digression into the history of the FBI. I for one appreciate this because Navasky keeps the focus on RFK's attorney generalship, but I'd also advise that readers should at least have a passing familiarity with RFK's life and the civil rights movement.
Overall, I'd definitely recommend this book to anybody interested in RFK, but also scholars interested in bureaucratic politics and law enforcement.