The Globe, the Times and RFK’s papers

Robert Kennedy

There’s been a pretty interesting development in the battle over Robert Kennedy’s papers. The New York Times reports that members of Kennedy’s family are unhappy with the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, and may move the papers to George Washington University.

The story also says the family decided on March 1 to release 63 boxes of papers, some of them “dealing with Cuba, Vietnam and civil rights, [that] are classified as secret or top secret.”

These would appear to be the “54 crates of records” that the Boston Globe revealed last January were being withheld from all but a few favored historians. At that time, Robert Kennedy’s son Max placed his foot firmly in his mouth, telling the Globe’s Bryan Bender that he’s all for openness except in those cases when he’s not.

“I do believe that historians and journalists must do their homework, and observe the correct procedures for seeking permission to consult the papers, and explain their projects,” Max Kennedy was quoted as saying. Max’s boffo performance led me to bestow a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award upon him recently.

In the Times story, there is no mention of Max. Instead, another of Robert Kennedy’s sons, former congressman Joe Kennedy, emerges as the family spokesman, and he comes off as considerably more diplomatic than his younger brother.

A search of the Globe and Times archives shows that the family’s March 1 decision to release the papers was not reported prior to today’s Times story. That suggests a deliberate strategy of working hand in hand with Adam Clymer, the retired Times reporter who gets the lead byline today. Clymer, you may recall, is the author of “Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography,” a respected though admiring treatment of the late senator published in 2000.

All in all, fodder for a follow-up by Bender.

Library of Congress photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Kennedy hypocrisy harms the public interest

Robert Kennedy

Central to the idea of censorship is that it’s an action taken by the government. But it appears that the Kennedy family may have come up with a new form of censorship: suppression of government documents by a private person.

Boston Globe reporter Bryan Bender writes that Max Kennedy, one of Robert Kennedy’s children, has barred full access to his father’s papers dating back to his time as attorney general. Historians tell Bender those documents could prove embarrassing given what they might reveal about RFK’s actions with regard to Cuba and civil rights.

For censorship aficionados, Max Kennedy’s e-mail to Bender is a classic:

There are many requests to see them, and frankly, many of those requests come from people with poorly-conceived projects. It is my responsibility, as custodian of the papers, to grant use responsibly. That does not mean that every book must be cloyingly positive; I do not think that for a moment, and I would be doing a disservice to my father if I acted that way. But I do believe that historians and journalists must do their homework, and observe the correct procedures for seeking permission to consult the papers, and explain their projects.

In other words, freedom of information is too precious to grant it to just anyone. What a repulsive example of hypocrisy.

Those papers were created at public expense and belong to us. It’s been 50 years. I’m not sure why Max Kennedy even has a say in the matter. But since he does, it’s long since time for him to put the public interest above the possibility that his father’s legacy will be tarnished.

Update: Martin Callaghan points out that Bender does not explain why the Kennedy family rather than the government gets to decide who has access and who doesn’t. The story demands follow-up, and I hope that explanation is forthcoming.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.