Kennedy apologists in media were surely shocked by what they witnessed on 60 Minutes this past Sunday -- acknowledgement of an episode in the life of Robert F. Kennedy that many liberals would prefer to keep hidden.
In the wake of President Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey, the weekly CBS news magazine dusted off a 2014 interview with Comey from one year after he was appointed.
At one point 60 Minutes correspondent and CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley cited a document from the early 1960s that Comey kept in his office --
PELLEY: James Comey has kept a memo on his desk to remind him of unchecked government power. Marked "secret", it's a 1963 request from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover titled "Martin Luther King, Jr. Security Matter -- Communist". Hoover requests authority for "technical surveillance" of King. The approval is signed by Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
(Speaking with Comey) There was no court order. It was a signature of the FBI director and the signature of the attorney general.
Back in the days when government wasn't run solely by court order, much to Pelley's chagrin.
COMEY: And then open-ended, no time limit, no space restriction, no review, no oversight.
PELLEY: And given the threats in the world today, wouldn't that make your job so much easier?
COMEY: In a sense but also in a sense we would give up so much that, make sure we're rooted in the rule of law, that I'd never want to make that trade.
Pelley never asks whether what Hoover and Kennedy did was lawful, though the fact that the FBI director sought "authority" for his request, in writing, to the top law enforcement official in the country, with both men's signatures attached to the document, strongly suggests the action was legal.
Worth noting is the specific individual cited by Hoover as the catalyst for the request -- "(King) is closely associated with Stanley Levison, a concealed member of the Communist Party USA. Levison has described King as a wholehearted Marxist who has studied Marxism, believes in it, agrees with it, but because of his being a minister of religion does not dare to espouse it publicly. In view of the possible communist influence in the racial situation, it is requested that authority be granted to place a technical surveillance on King ..."
Just who was Stanley Levison, a New York lawyer and businessman who died in 1979? Plenty has been written about him over the years but one of the most illuminating articles was published in July/August 2002 by The Atlantic, not exactly a right-wing propaganda organ, and titled "The FBI and Martin Luther King."
"Martin Luther King was never himself a Communist -- far from it," reads the article's drophead. "But the FBI's wiretapping of King was precipitated by his association with Stanley Levison, a man with reported ties to the Communist Party. Newly available documents reveal what the FBI actually knew -- the vast extent of Levison's Party activities." (emphasis added and again). The lengthy article was written by David J. Garrow, author of "The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr: From 'Solo' to Memphis" (1981) and a 1987 biography of King, "Bearing the Cross."
The FBI's sources for information on Levison were two brothers, Jack and Morris Childs, members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) who'd grown disillusioned. "The FBI knew, in copious firsthand detail from the Childs brothers, that Levison had secretly served as one of the top two financiers in the Communist Party USA in the years just before he met King," Garrow wrote. "The Childs' brothers direct, personal contact with Levison from the mid-1940s to 1956 was sufficient to leave no doubt whatsoever that their reports about his role were accurate and truthful. Their proximity to Levison also gave them direct knowledge of his disappearance from CPUSA financial affairs in the years after (emphasis in the original) 1958."
"But when the FBI tardily learned of Levison's closeness to King in early 1962," Garrow added, "the Bureau understandably hypothesized that someone with Levison's secret (though thoroughly documented) record of invaluable service to the CPUSA might very well not have turned up at Martin Luther King's elbow by happenstance. With the FBI suggesting that Levison's seeming departure from the CPUSA was in all likelihood a ruse, Robert Kennedy and his aides felt they had little choice but to assume the worst and act as defensively as possible."
How close was Levison to King? "By April of 1957," according to Garrow, "Levison, like (civil rights activist Bayard) Rustin, was counseling King about the first major address that King would deliver -- from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on May 17. Over the ensuing months Levison negotiated a book contract for King's own account of the Montgomery boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, and then offered line-by-line criticism and assistance in editing and polishing the book's text. Levison also took charge of other tasks, ranging from writing King's fundraising letters to preparing his tax returns."
Even though Levison later suggested to King, in response to pressure from the Kennedys, that the two men distance themselves, King and Levison remained in close contact for the rest of King's life. "From the late 1950s until King's death, in 1968, it was without a doubt King's closest friendship with a white person," Garrow wrote. (emphasis added).
The historical context of Hoover's request and RFK's approval, in October 1963 at the height of the Cold War, cannot be overstated. It was less than one year after the Cuban Missile Crisis when the United States and Soviet Union came right to the brink of nuclear annihilation. Only a month later, an avowed communist who had once defected to the USSR murdered President Kennedy in Dallas. (Parallels cited in the deaths of Lincoln and JFK usually omit that both men were killed by angry partisans on the losing side of a bitter conflict). Liberals repeatedly downplayed the threat from communism during the Cold War, and since the fall of the Berlin Wall have tried to dismiss it as overstated. But in the autumn of 1963, the threat was all too real and could not be ignored.
One day after 60 Minutes reaired its Comey interview, another left-leaning media outlet cited the government surveillance of King -- and in a way that's much more familiar. Here's how it was described on the NPR Politics podcast on Monday --
NPR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER SCOTT DETROW: Now a lot of these agency heads are often, you know, people with political backgrounds, former governors, senators, things like that. It's true that nobody's ever run the FBI who was a career politician, right, they've all come from within the ranks?
NPR JUSTICE REPORTER CARRIE JOHNSON: Yeah, you know, you're not going to believe this -- well, maybe you will -- there have only been seven directors of the FBI in FBI history.
DETROW: That's because one of 'em stayed around forever!
DETROW: Of course that's J. Edgar Hoover, the guy the building is named after, someone who's really loomed large for positive and negative reasons in FBI history.
JOHNSON: Yeah, a man who amassed enormous power, more power some would argue than the presidents he allegedly served. And, you know, somebody James Comey, to be honest, was wary of. Comey kept in his office some documents involving the FBI wiretap of Martin Luther King Jr. as a reminder that these jobs carry a lot of authority and you should use it wisely and well.
Ahhh, so Comey was "wary" of J. Edgar Hoover -- but apparently not of Kennedy. Didn't both men abuse their power in wiretapping King?
After RFK's role in the affair makes a fleeting appearance on 60 Minutes, NPR quickly consigns it back to its rightful place in the memory hole.
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