Sen. Ted Kennedy’s just-released FBI files are a fascinating window into the complex relationship between the nation’s most famous family of Democrats and its most famous federal law enforcement agency.
During the era of Director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI appeared to be keeping a wary eye on at least some of Senator Kennedy’s political activities. At the same time, Director Hoover appears to have maintained a cordial personal relationship with Joseph P. Kennedy, Ted’s father, as well as with young Ted himself.
The sad legacy of Kennedy assassinations was a major factor in the relationship, as well. The documents released Monday contain hundreds of pages of death threats against Sen. Kennedy collected by FBI informants or passed to the agency from local police.
These range from the apparently serious to the ephemeral. For instance, on July 24, 1968, a reporter for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner wrote Hoover a personal letter saying that in the course of researching stories on Extra Sensory Perception, the reporter had become convinced of ESP’s validity.
“[This] warning is being passed on to you for your files,” wrote the journalist, whose name is redacted from the document as released.
Historians, journalists, political scientists, and ordinary Kennedy buffs have been eagerly awaiting a look at the FBI’s Ted Kennedy files. The agency released 2,352 pages of documents on Monday per a Freedom of Information Act request from the Associated Press and other media organizations.
The material released came from seven FBI files, noted the agency in an overview posted on its web site. Three of these files were held at FBI headquarters in Washington, and four were field agency files. In total, they cover the years from 1961 to 1985.
The bulk of the material consists of threats of violence or extortion attempts against Kennedy or other public officials, notes the FBI.
“At no point do these files suggest that the FBI investigated Senator Kennedy for a criminal violation or as a security threat,” says the FBI’s statement.
That does not mean the FBI did not watch some of the things Kennedy was doing, however. That might be demonstrated by the incident of the lost notebook.
In 1961, just prior to his first election to the Senate, the young Teddy took a fact finding trip to Central and South America. Long worried about the influence of leftists, revolutionaries, and outright communists on US affairs, the FBI “took an interest in Kennedy’s travels”, according to the agency itself.
Among the items recovered by the FBI from this trip was a personal diary or notebook kept by Kennedy during his travels.
According to an internal FBI memo, this notebook was turned over to the agency by a Pan American airways representative, who had recovered it after it had been left on the airplane and found by a cleaning crew. The memo goes on to summarize the notebook’s contents, including Kennedy’s impressions of people he had met, and the names of his contacts.
A hand-written note on the memo, which appears to be from Hoover himself, directs that the “original” diary be returned, and a note sent to the Attorney General – who at the time happened to be Ted’s brother, Robert Kennedy. The note also says that a copy need not be returned to the Kennedy family. Presumably, this copy was retained by the FBI.
A second hand-written notation indicates that the notebook was returned, not to Kennedy himself, but to “P. Kenneth O’Donnell at the White House” at 11:22 AM on August 7, 1961.
Mr. O’Donnell was a top aide to President John F. Kennedy. Hoover was nothing if not shrewd about Washington power ways, and he surely saw the benefit of making sure the president was aware of how the FBI was handling the youngest of the Kennedy brothers.
In the years to come Hoover seemed to maintain friendly relations with Kennedy – as he did with many lawmakers who could affect his budget or even his position. After Kennedy was badly injured in a 1964 plane crash, Hoover sent his personal best wishes, earning him a warm letter of thanks from Kennedy’s then-wife Joan.
While recuperating from the crash, Kennedy began to put together a book of reminiscences about his father Joseph, self-made founder of the family fortune as well as founding director of the Securities and Exchange Commission and ambassador to Great Britain under FDR. He wrote Hoover, asking for a contribution.
“I’d like to do this,” scribbled Hoover on the letter. He – or some unknown ghost writer – subsequently returned a long and fairly bland essay reciting and praising Joseph Kennedy’s public service exploits.