The Man Who Stood Up to Bobby Kennedy


If there is one thing that sets much of this generation apart from earlier activist ones, it is the insistence on personal worth—the refusal to subordinate humanity to dogma. The demand to replace corporate bureaucracy with community participation; the values of a single human spirit.
—John Lindsay, speaking to Columbia University students in December 1968

In all the obituaries following the death of John Lindsay last December 19, there was scarcely any mention of his eight terms in the House of Representatives—before he became mayor of New York. One notable exception was Adam Bernstein’s recollection in the December 21 Washington Post that, while in congress, Lindsay “became a forceful proponent on matters affecting constitutional rights and civil liberties.”

I began reporting on Lindsay while he was in the House and continued through his years as mayor. From my articles in the Voice and The New Yorker, I later wrote a book, A Political Life: The Education of John V. Lindsay (Knopf).

Often alone on the House floor, Lindsay wielded the Bill of Rights against its enemies, one of the most powerful of whom was then attorney general Robert Kennedy.

Bobby Kennedy “used his office as if he were the Godfather getting even with the enemies of the Family.”

Later, Kennedy did evolve into a paladin of the poor and civil rights. But while in charge of the nation’s rule of law, he—as Sidney Zion noted in the December 27 New York Post—“used his office as if he were the Godfather getting even with the enemies of the Family.”

Zion, who was an assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey under Kennedy, says, “There never was and hopefully never will be an attorney general who more violated the Bill of Rights than Bobby Kennedy.”

Well, Kennedy doesn’t quite merit the Torquemada Prize. That should go to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who in 1920 took sweeping advantage of the “Red Scare” that was engulfing the country. He cast a dragnet over 33 cities in 23 states, harvesting more than 4000 alleged radicals with purported ties to the Bolsheviks, who had executed the czar. It was Palmer who gave J. Edgar Hoover his start as a Red hunter. Both dedicated themselves to eradicating what Palmer called the “disease of evil thinking.”

But Bobby Kennedy was as contemptuous of the Bill of Rights as George W. Bush during his years as governor of Texas. In his zeal to imprison the Teamsters’ Jimmy Hoffa, Kennedy stretched the Fourth Amendment wholly out of shape. As Zion put it, Kennedy “took this country into eavesdropping, into every violation of privacy ever feared by the Founders.”

John Lindsay fought Kennedy on that betrayal of the Constitution, but was unsuccessful because the president, John F. Kennedy, was also, at best, indifferent to the Bill of Rights. Also, the Democrats in Congress put party loyalty above the Constitution—just as later Democrats, except for a few dissenters like Paul Wellstone, Russell Feingold, and Pat Leahy, did for the eight years of Clinton’s abuses of civil liberties.

John Lindsay stood up to Bobby Kennedy again when, in 1963, the out-of-control attorney general decided to expand the 1918 Sedition Act, which, under President Woodrow Wilson, had terminated the First Amendment during the First World War.

That 1918 law, worthy of the Bolshevik regime, prohibited anyone, under pain of punishment, to “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, abusive language about the form of government of the United States, of the Constitution of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy of the United States, or any language intended to . . . encourage resistance to the United States or to promote the cause of its enemies.”

That 1918 act was a throwback to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Thomas Jefferson’s opposition to those dictatorial measures greatly helped him to become the third president of the United States.

Bobby Kennedy, hardly a student of American constitutional history, wanted to expand the 1918 Sedition Act to cover Americans anywhere in the world.

On the floor of the House, Lindsay said of Bobby Kennedy’s bid to become the next A. Mitchell Palmer: “The abuses to free speech in this bill are so great that even a congressman possibly could be cited and prosecuted for verbal attacks on United States policies and action.” Let alone any American protesting our burgeoning involvement in the Vietnam War in 1963.

Lindsay and the First Amendment lost. The House dutifully passed the Kennedy measure broadening the 1918 Sedition Act. Young Bill Clinton, who was at Oxford University a few years later, actively opposed the Vietnam War, attacking the American government that was waging it. He could have been busted under Bobby Kennedy’s superpatriotic law.

Another enemy of the Bill of Rights confronted by Lindsay was the formidable Francis Walter, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee. His Industrial Security Bill would have denied workers suspected of being security risks any access to classified material involved in certain government contracts.

Those suspected workers would be fired. The bill covered some 5 million people employed in private industry and in universities and working on defense contracts or corollary research.

The accused would not have been able to confront and cross-examine those who submitted information against them. There was no provision for appeals to the courts.

Walter tried to get the bill passed by putting it on the “consent calendar,” by which the House would adopt it automatically if no member objected. Lindsay was the only congressman to object. Later, Walter brought the bill up again under suspension of the rules, which required only that two-thirds of the members actually present on the floor at the time vote yes. But by then, Lindsay had rounded up allies.

The Industrial Security Bill passed the House 247-132—six votes short of a two-thirds majority. It was the first time, John Lindsay told me with satisfaction, that the Un-American Activities Committee had ever been defeated in a floor fight.

In his Yale University thesis on the life of Oliver Cromwell, Lindsay quoted a Puritan preacher telling Parliament about “two fundamental demands common to all Puritan sects: liberty of conscience, and reform—of the universities, the countries, the cities.”

John Lindsay went from Congress to reform this city.