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Joan Vennochi

Release RFK’s records

(File/ The Boston Globe)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / January 30, 2011

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ROBERT F. Kennedy played a critical role in American history when he served his brother, President John F. Kennedy, as US attorney general. Shouldn’t the public have access to records from his Camelot days?

It doesn’t and has no legal right to them, according to Greg Craig, a Kennedy family friend and high-powered Washington lawyer who is advising RFK family members on the matter.

As The Globe’s Bryan Bender recently reported, 54 crates of documents generated by Robert Kennedy are stacked in a vault at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester. They are so closely guarded that even the library director can’t look at them. Historians say the documents include important Cold War information: diaries, notes, phone logs, messages, trip files, and details about RFK’s role in the Cuban missile crisis and as coordinator of covert efforts to overthrow Fidel Castro.

No one can review any of it, unless Max Kennedy — Robert Kennedy’s ninth child — gives permission. And, said Craig, “There is no legal obligation to make them public.’’

Here’s why: The Presidential Records Act of 1978 governs the official records of presidents and vice presidents. A version of this law was first passed in 1974 to stop Richard Nixon from spiriting away his presidential papers. Its reach was expanded four years later to cover records of presidents and vice presidents that were created or received after January 20, 1981.

This law dramatically changed the legal ownership of official records of presidents and vice presidents from private to public. Access can be requested under the Freedom of Information Act, five years after an administration ends. But even then obstacles remain. Presidents can invoke as many as six specific restrictions for up to 12 years.

For some, that’s not restrictive enough. President George W. Bush, via a 2001 executive order, moved to further block access to his records and those of former presidents. His directive also restricted access to the records of his father, George H. W. Bush. President Obama revoked Bush’s executive order on the day he took office.

Craig — who was Obama’s White House counsel at the time — said none of that matters to the Kennedy case, because the public records act is not retroactive to 1960. JFK’s records are not covered by it and neither are RFK’s. Besides, he said, “It doesn’t apply to someone who is not president.’’

Robert Kennedy’s heirs “would love’’ to make RFK’s records available “in some organized, systematic, and regularized way,’’ said Craig, but don’t have the resources. Meanwhile, the papers are private. Robert Kennedy willed them to his wife, Ethel, who put them under Max Kennedy’s control.

If there’s no legal obligation, there should be a moral one — especially given the sophisticated public relations machine that is always churning out the glossiest Camelot view.

The JFK Library is celebrating the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s inauguration with a retrospective entitled “Jack’s Back.’’ As part of that campaign, Caroline Kennedy recently launched “Access to a Legacy,’’ a digitalized archive of thousands of JFK recordings, telephone conversations, speeches, meetings, photos, and other images.

Recently, RFK family members, along with former top aides from Robert Kennedy’s years as attorney general, gathered in Washington to pay tribute to his role in the nation’s civil rights battle.

The Kennedy mystique extends to heirs and pets. When RFK’s grandson, Joseph Kennedy III, helped commemorate a speech that JFK delivered in Boston 50 years ago, it immediately sparked speculation that the 30-year-old prosecutor will pick up the torch and run for office. Even the death of Ted Kennedy’s 13-year-old dog “Splash’’ made headlines.

Meanwhile, various Kennedy relatives convinced the History Channel to shelve a TV mini-series about JFK. Family members objected to historical inaccuracies. According to The New York Times, historians who complained on the family’s behalf said that the scripts contained “factual errors, fabrications, and more than a dash of salacious innuendo.’’ One of the contested scenes involved the Cuban missile crisis.

One sure way to counter fiction? Release historic records that tell the truth.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.