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President Bush Renames Justice Department

Aired November 20, 2001 - 14:39   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go back to the Justice Department now. Attorney General John Ashcroft talking there at the lectern. President Bush will be up in just a moment.


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: It's been my privilege to speak on a number of occasions at ceremonies in this great hall. This ceremony today is one that pays a special tribute to the role of family and service to the nation. Men and women of the Justice Department are honored and when we honor them, this hall is often filled with husbands and wives and parents of the honorees. The presence of these family members is a reminder that our service to our country is also a lesson to those who are around us and those with whom we live.

When we sacrifice for the cause of justice, we teach. We teach others that there are things more important than ourselves. There are causes, there are struggles, there are principles that transcend us. Things that are worth sacrificing for. The most important thing my father ever taught me was that there were more important things than me. And the man we honor today lived a life that is a reflection of that simple wisdom, that there were values and principles worth the passion of life, worth the intensity of effort.

Robert F. Kennedy came to the Department of Justice at a time when organized crime threatened the very foundations of the Republic, discrimination threatened to turn citizen against citizen and neighbor against neighbor. Totalitarianism abroad engaged democracy here at home.

Robert Kennedy devoted himself, he devoted the Department of Justice, and finally devoted his life to upholding justice for all Americans. He led an extraordinary campaign against organized crime that inspires us still today in the war against terrorism. He was unafraid to call his enemy evil and unapologetic about devoting all his resources, his energy and his passion to that evil's defeat. He saw a cause greater than himself: the defense of a nation and it's citizens, and their freedom. And he never tired in its pursuit.

Today, we're not merely relabeling this building in the memory of Robert Kennedy. We are rededicating this Department of Justice to the causes he served. We must rededicate ourselves to the protection of dignity, respect, rights and freedom of all Americans. We must rededicate ourselves to the preservation of our way of life. And we must rededicate ourself to the safety and security of innocent people from sources of evil in the world.

This is not a dedication which is the privilege alone of those who serve in the Justice Department. And I'm grateful for the members of the Congress who are here today, whose responsibility it is to shape a framework and a capacity in which we defend the values which our culture holds so dear.

It is now my privilege to introduce Joseph Kennedy, whose father we honor today.

As a leader, Joseph's father challenged those beyond his family to a cause greater than themselves. And he challenged all of us who served the cause of justice here.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Joseph Kennedy.


JOSEPH KENNEDY, SON OF ROBERT F. KENNEDY: Thank you very much, Mr. Attorney General, for those kind words about my father and thank you for standing up for what you believe in.

I think everyone in this room ought to be acknowledged and thanked for the dedication that each and everyone of you have shown to the principle of justice in our country. And on behalf of all our family, Mr. President, I want to thank you for the kindness, for the generosity and for the strong leadership that you are showing our country today. Thank you very, very much.


Our nation is facing trying and difficult times that require strong and judicious leadership. Robert Kennedy recognized that at times of national crisis, we must always be vigilant, not only to protect the innocent, but also to protect our liberty.

I particularly want to thank the former attorneys general of the United States who are here with us today, including Attorney General Thornberg, Attorney General Meese, Nick Katzenbach, who's one of my dad's dear friends, and so many others who have helped in so many ways, including former CIA and FBI Director Webster and Mr. Moore and others who are here with us today. We thank you so much for all the leadership and the strength you are showing our country in our time of need, Mr. President, Mr. Attorney general and so many friends who are here today to remember Robert Kennedy.

On behalf of all the members of our family, most importantly my mother and my brothers and sisters, let me thank not only President Bush, but all of you for the great honor of naming this building, the Justice Department, for Robert F. Kennedy. Mr. President, your strength since September 11 has been a profile in leadership. You deserve the thanks of all who are committed to freedom from fear. And for all of us as Americans, we stand behind you and with you at this time. (APPLAUSE)

As one of many in this room who might be accused of trading on a famous last name to get where you are, I thought you might like to hear what my dad had to say to lawyers here at the Justice Department on his first day on the job.

He said, "I started in the Department of Justice as a young lawyer in 1951. The salary was about $4,000 a year. But I worked hard. I was ambitious. I studied. I applied myself. And then my brother was elected president of the United States.


We both know what that feels like, Mr. President. I also want to pay tribute to my mother for her love and her determination to sustain my father's vision through the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial. How about a little round for Ethel here.


To my brothers and sisters: You have given so much of yourselves to public service, including working hard through the law to achieve social change. In fact, I think there are enough lawyers in the family to occupy a whole wing of this Justice Department. To my cousin, Patrick Kennedy, and to my colleagues from Capitol Hill: Congressman Tim Romer, who did such yeoman's work in helping out; John Lewis, a great friend; Joe Scarborough, a Republican who busted my father in his office; Senators Pat Leahy and Orrin Hatch, we owe you a deep debt of gratitude for your support.

You know, Robert Kennedy had only a few months more than 1,000 days here at the Justice Department. But it was here in the clash for and struggle for civil rights, in the forefront of the fight against organized crime and corruption, and in another time when the soul of America was being tested, that the nation and the world saw Robert Kennedy at the center of the storm. He was tough. He was smart and utterly unafraid, a realist who knew the risks of doing what was unpopular. An idealist who knew, despite the temptations to compromise, was ready at anytime to take on anybody and do anything to do what was right.

Justice for him was a cause, a search, a struggle, a passion, an ideal. He was so moved by his passion for justice that he was willing to make the personal and political sacrifices that others shied away from in order to try to achieve it. He came to this building that will now bear his name, aware that justice for many in our nation was simply a myth.

My father thought it was wrong that the just because of your skin color, black Americans could not sit in the same classrooms as whites, drink at the same water fountains, eat at the same lunch counters or dream the same dreams for their future and their children. He took on race. And if justice was mocked by Jim Crow, it was scandalized by the unpunished violence of the Ku Klux Klan, whose brutality was often encouraged by local politicians and ignored by local police. As attorney general, he knew it might jeopardize President Kennedy's re-election to stand for racial equality. But when the decision had to be made, he not only took up the issue, he made it his cause. He faced down Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett to protect James Meredith. He personally confronted Alabama Governor George Wallace to follow the law and integrate the state university. He sent federal marshals to protect the freedom riders, some of whom, like John Lewis and John Seigenthaler, are here with us in this room today. He filed court challenges, even in Democratic strongholds, to guarantee the voting franchise of black Americans.

He was a different kind of leader and people knew it. His work tore apart the comfortable fabric of an unjust social contract. We honor him not because he made things easy, but because he made them hard. He forced every American to look into his or her heart to see what was right and to do something about it. He changed the indifference, even within his own party, that tolerated corrupt union bosses and organized crime and the inattention that aided and abetted corporate abuse. He used justice to force America to change. He used the law to protect people's rights and to right social wrongs.

Outside this building during the Cuban missile crisis, he was an architect of America's greatest victory of the Cold War. And within this building, he made everyone proud to be a part of a Department of Justice worthy of its name. He not only told them, but together with them, showed that public service could be a noble profession.

They were, but they were often called back then, a band of brothers, united in their love for America, not just for what it was but for what it could become. And how proud my father would be to see so many members of that band here today with all of us. All of you were on his team.

Robert Kennedy was criticized at times for being too unyielding, too unwilling to compromise between right and wrong. Like you, Mr. President, he believed that there was a fundamental difference between good and evil and that evil had to be opposed. He was a great politician who believed that in a great crisis, we had to be Americans first, not partisan. He was a peacemaker who enlisted in the Navy and who, at the end of his own life, broke with his own president to resist a war that he believed was wrong.

He was a leader at the top of the world who summoned us to seek a newer world, who reached across an ocean to Nelson Mandela in a South African prison and across a continent to Cesar Chavez in the parched California farm fields, where he was organizing immigrant workers in the face of death threats.

And Robert Kennedy, a son of privilege, reached out to the powerless and to the vulnerable. His war on hunger took him to the hollows of Appalachia, the tenements of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the windswept landscape of Indian reservations, to shine the spotlight of deprivation and despair in the wealthiest country in the world. He sat in a tar-paper shack in Mississippi of a sharecropper's home and held a child in his lap whose belly was distended from hunger and his body was covered with sores. And this strong man wept at the justice. In every fiber of his being, he lived out his belief that each and every one of us bears a responsibility to do whatever we can to right the wrongs of this world and to use our talents and our time to serve a larger purpose. At the height of office, he waged that battle side by side with President Kennedy. And it has been carried on all the years since by their younger brother and our uncle, Teddy, who has done so much to make this day possible. Teddy, we love you and we thank you.


After my father left the Justice Department and after he was taken from us just a few years later, his children who are old enough to remember often thought back on the times when he brought us to this very department to work with him. Ena Bernard (ph), who helped take care of many of us, reminded me just recently of one of those visits. She said we were running around my dad's office and some crisis came up, maybe it was the standoff with Cuba or James Meredith. And my father, with a kind of wry smile, ask Ena (ph) to take us down the hall to see one of his associates.

Moments later, she trooped us into an office. Ena (ph) reminded me that the man behind the desk looked very cross as we ran around and opened his drawers and files and looked through his desk. And he finally called an aide to usher us out.

"Who was that guy", I asked Ena (ph). She said, "I'm not sure, but he was kind of short and heavy set. I think he grumbled his name was Hoover."


Some of you get it.

And in all honesty, Mr. Attorney General, I have to confess. When we were in your office a little earlier today, I hardly recognized you. Of course, the last time I was in there, there were eight kids swinging around the drapes and a 100-pound Newfoundland trying to eat the couch.

In closing, let me recall the first speech which Robert Kennedy chose to give as attorney general. It came after four months of the Kennedy administration. And he had declined over 100 speaking invitations.

It was law day in 1961. He went to the University of Georgia to a firm, unequivocally, that the Kennedy administration would enforce civil rights. The campus had been rocked by riots, because the university had just admitted its first two black students. One of them, Charlene Hunter-Gault, would later become one of America's leading journalists.

Robert Kennedy was informed that the school authorities feared that his presence on campus might magnify the violence. And it was hoped that he would not attend any meeting with the two black students. But, of course, he went to Georgia. And, of course, he met with the black students. And, of course, he spoke frankly about civil rights.

"Southerners have a special respect for candor and plain talk," he said that day. "They certainly don't like hypocrisy. So, I must tell you candidly what our policies are going to be in the field of civil rights."

"In all cases, I say to you, that if the orders of courts are circumvented, the Department of Justice will act. We will not be aloof. We will move. We will not threaten. We will try to help. We will not persecute. We will prosecute. We will not make or interpret the laws. We shall enforce them, vigorously without regional bias or political slant."

"But all the high rhetoric about liberty and justice is meaningless unless people, you and I, breathe force and meaning into it. The road ahead is full of difficulties and discoveries, but I pledge all I have in material things and physical strength and spirit to see that freedom shall advance and that our children will grow old under the rule of law."

Many years later, in part because of him, his children, and the children of that time, are growing older in a land that more truly fulfills the ideal of justice and equality for all. Robert Kennedy did not live long, but his legacy lives on, now in this building and always in those countless individuals who strive on so that what he wished for will someday come to pass for all of the world.

Mr. President, I want to thank you once again from the bottom of my heart for the high honor that you have paid to Robert Kennedy by naming this building in his memory. Thank you.




Please be seated.

Joe, thank you for those stirring words. There's nothing quite like the eloquence of a loyal son.

I want to welcome you and all of your brothers and sisters and your mom and Senator Kennedy.

I want to thank the attorney generals who are here. And I want to thank our current attorney general.

Thank you for being here, Director. I'd like to thank the members of Congress who are here, the senators and the members of the House of Representatives for coming, both Republicans and Democrats.

I want to thank, Administrator Perry.

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm so pleased to be with you in giving this building a great American name. Seventy-nine Americans have held the title of attorney general, and 25 of them worked in this building. But in the history of this department and in the memory of our country, we hold a special place for Robert Francis Kennedy.


He first worked here 50 years ago, as Joe said, just out of law school of the University of Virginia. He reported here every morning to the criminal division.

He was 26, married, the father of one, a baby girl who is now the lieutenant governor of the state of Maryland.


Ahead of him were many more accomplishments and a lot more children.


There's no doubt in my mind that he would look upon his sons and daughters and his grandkids with such incredible pride.

America first saw him and heard his voice in the mid-50s when he was minority counsel for the Senate Committee investigating organized crime. There was something about him that no one could miss: an intense, intelligent presence, a voice that could quiet a room. As a friend has remembered him, "Robert Kennedy was not a hard man, but he was a tough man. He valued bluntness and precision and truth. Those under investigation learned those qualities firsthand."

In the eyes of John F. Kennedy no man ever had a more faithful brother. During his presidential campaign he said, "I don't know what Bobby does, but it always seem to turn out right." We are told that after the election the younger brother wasn't sure he wanted to join the Cabinet and he said so to the president-elect. Robert tried to make the case explaining why he should not become attorney general. There was no reply. The president-elect simply left the room and casually returned a few minutes later to say, "So that's it, General, let's go."

To this day visitors to the West Wing seeing the Rose Garden and the Colonnade, instantly think of the pictures of the two brothers together. And from this day, his birthday, everyone who enters this building or passes by will think of Robert F. Kennedy and what he still means to this country.

He was not our longest-serving attorney general, yet none is more fondly remembered and few have filled their time here with so much energy or seen events of such consequence. He was at his brother's side during the 13 days in October 1962 where he was firm and discerning and calm.

In this building, he set to work on what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Here he gave the order sending 500 U.S. marshals to protect the Freedom Riders. He stood for racial desegregation, and to those on the side of the issue he said this: "My belief doesn't matter, it's the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong, that doesn't matter. It is the law."

With us today are some of the people who worked for our 64th attorney general, each of whom who counts it as an experience of a lifetime. They still look up to him. Time has done nothing to weaken their loyalty to the valiant and idealistic man they knew and followed.

Robert Kennedy was a serious man, concerned with serious things. And he loved his friends. He was a strong man who understood weakness; a man who knew privilege, but also suffering. He fought to gain power and chose to use it in the defense of the powerless. To millions who never knew him, he's still an example of kindness and courage.

American today is passing through a time of incredible testing, and as we do so, we admire even more the spirit of Robert Kennedy, a spirit that tolerates no injustice, and fears no evil. That's how this country sees him.

But today and every November 20, a large and loving family thinks of the dad they miss. Some of you know your way around this building, because he brought you here.

As Joe said, the attorney general's conference room was in his office, and a play room -- and as the photos displayed here make it clear, he also enjoyed one of my favorite perks of office: You get to bring your dog to work.


Of all that he left behind, nothing brings Robert Kennedy more clearly to mind than his good wife. In the first year of their marriage he recorded his feelings by quoting the Book of Ruth: "Wither thou goest, I will go, and we will be together forever."

For 33 years, Ethel Kennedy has walked with grace and dignity, faithful to God and to the memory of her husband. Any tribute to Robert Kennedy must also be a tribute to Mrs. Robert Kennedy.


She shares in all his achievements. She's added many of her own.

Mrs. Kennedy, America honors you, as well.

This great building and all who work here serve the public in the cause of justice. It now bears the name of a good and decent man, truly devoted to justice.

On behalf of the people of the United States, I proudly dedicate the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building.

(APPLAUSE) WOODRUFF: In a ceremony remarkable on so many levels, President George W. Bush has announced he is renaming, or naming, the Justice Department after someone whose political views couldn't have been more different than his own, Robert Kennedy, a liberal Democrat who was assassinated in 1968.

He was attorney general while his brother John F. Kennedy was president. And, of course, he was assassinated in 1963. Five years later, an assassin took the life of Robert F. Kennedy.

We just heard President Bush commend him as a father, as a friend and as a leader. He said -- he pointed out today -- it would have been Robert Kennedy's 76th birthday. And, just briefly, he said, "He was a serious man concerned with serious things. He knew privilege but he also knew suffering. He used power. He went after power. But he used it in defense of the powerless." He said, "He was a good and decent man, truly devoted to justice."

President Bush, naming the Department of Justice after Robert Francis Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, the brother of the late president John Kennedy.




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