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Robert Kennedy's Transformation
Published on Tuesday, November 20, 2001 in the Boston Globe
Robert Kennedy's Transformation
by James Carroll
 
TODAY IN Washington, President Bush will honor Robert Kennedy by naming the Justice Department building for him. By any measure, this is an extraordinary public event, but it has a poignant personal meaning for me.

It was the summer of 1961. I was a college student employed as a summer intern at the FBI. In those days, the northeast half of the Justice Department building was given over to the FBI, and J. Edgar Hoover's office was in the corner opposite Kennedy's. Those of us on the bureau side knew that Hoover hated the young attorney general, which made little sense because both men seemed devoted to the same causes - the campaigns against communism and organized crime.

One day, we interns were summoned to the departmental auditorium on the Justice side of the building. The attorney general was going to address the department's college student employees, inviting us to sign up with the New Frontier after graduation.

I have a vivid memory of Kennedy at that podium - his tousled hair, his shirt sleeves, his palm slapping the wood for emphasis - but what remains with me as the source of a life-changing epiphany is the content of his speech. Instead of the expected diatribe against communism or crime, the attorney general spoke feelingly about civil rights.

He identified the end of racial segregation as the most important challenge facing America - and the Justice Department. It was shocking to us, especially to those of us from the FBI side, since the bureau was almost entirely white - and we knew it was Hoover's intention to keep it that way.

In 1961, the civil rights movement was still generally regarded by whites as threatening, perhaps subversive. For Kennedy to identify with the movement and to bring its agenda into the heart of government represented a transformation in the making - personal as well as political. I returned to the other side of the Justice Department building that day changed. The word ''justice'' would never fall on my ear in the same way again.

Robert Kennedy is precious in the American memory because he embodied the possibility of personal and political transformation. The arc of his own life was the story of such change, but so was his impact on government.

The summer of 1961 - the summit at Vienna, the Berlin crisis - was the apex of confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Military men dominated American responses, with some advocating ''preventive war.'' Robert Kennedy played a crucial role in helping his brother transform hard-nosed confrontation into a spirit of negotiation, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

The Kennedys' tilt away from war at that crucial moment would define the future. The president's death 38 years ago this Thursday would further Robert Kennedy's personal transformation and would prepare the nation to recognize its own need for new ways of understanding itself.

By the time Robert Kennedy launched his own campaign for president in 1968, his transformation was complete. The disenfranchised recognized this son of privilege as their own tribune. Blue collar workers, whom many liberals disdained, saw him as an advocate. Those who had viscerally turned away from the war in Vietnam found in his embrace of peace a reason to turn back to politics. Traditional distinctions between right and left seemed not to apply among those who responded to him, and that phenomenon was the most promising aspect of the change he represented.

The coincidence of Robert Kennedy's assassination on the heels of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. could seem like no coincidence at the time. Their deaths together sealed forever the meaning of American political hope - and for many Americans the names Bobby and Martin continue to resonate as emblems of an unfinished campaign.

That is why the naming of the Justice Department building for Robert Kennedy is a good thing. But there is, also, a contradiction in today's observance.

As attorneys general go, John Ashcroft is a total repudiation of what Robert Kennedy came to stand for, and the Bush administration's approach to law enforcement in a time of national emergency evokes the memory of J. Edgar Hoover far more readily than that of his young nemesis.

The assault on civil liberties in the name of ''homeland security,'' especially the open contempt for noncitizens and the president's order establishing military tribunals, represent not only grave threats to justice - but signals of surrender to terrorists aiming to undermine democracy. And the unbridled war in Afghanistan, with new calls for wider ''preventive war,'' reverses the very progress embodied in Robert Kennedy's own journey from fierce Cold Warrior to advocate of negotiation and peace.

On these several scores, one imagines Robert Kennedy interrupting today's ceremony to stand and say a word - his palm slapping the podium - of dissent.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company

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