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Kearns Goodwin: FBI Files Reveal A Fearless Ted Kennedy

Sen. Kennedy, then Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, speaks with former FBI Director Clarence Kelly prior to hearings on the 1979 FBI Charter Act. (AP)

BOSTON — Pulitizer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin knows the Kennedy family well. She has studied their role in American history — and she’s a longtime family friend.

But Goodwin still found plenty of surprises in the FBI’s file on the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, released Monday by the FBI.

They contain hundreds of pages of death threats, the FBI’s archive relative to the Chappaquiddick incident and even records of the FBI’s look into stranger tales about Kennedy, like the rumor that the mafia was involved in an attempt to put Edward and Robert Kennedy in compromising situations with women using a plan that involved Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe.

“He just said that at a certain point you have to decide, almost as a matter of will, that you will not allow yourself to be afraid.”
– Doris Kearns Goodwin

Goodwin told WBUR’s Bob Oakes that the files deepen and complicate known stories about Kennedy’s life. She was stunned, she says, to see how many death threats the FBI had collected. “Knowing that his brothers had been killed, they weren’t simply vague threats,” Goodwin said.

The threats in the files tell a side of Kennedy’s story that hardly anyone knew. “I remember in 1980, when we were talking with him about the question of whether he’d run for the presidency, and he noted to us that his children were concerned about whether or not there would be an attack on him as there had been on his brothers,” Kearns said. “But he just said that at a certain point you have to decide, almost as a matter of will, that you will not allow yourself to be afraid.”

No one realized just how much Kennedy had to fear — partially because, Goodwin said, Kennedy himself probably concealed it from those around him. So the files have been a revelation. “It makes that effort of will to conquer your instinctive body fears even greater than I had realized.”

Goodwin said the files also illustrate the complicated relationship shared by the Kennedy family and J. Edgar Hoover, who directed the FBI from its founding in 1935 to his death in 1972. The documents show that Kennedy’s father, Joseph, was listed as a “special service contract” for the FBI from 1943 to 1954 — and that the family developed a relationship with Hoover and the bureau long after that.

“On one hand, what you see in these documents is that the FBI takes a personal responsibility to protect Teddy Kennedy,” Goodwin explained. Hoover tipped Kennedy off about a planned attempt by the Students for a Democratic Society to embarrass him in a speech in 1970, and Kennedy asked Hoover to write an essay in the book Kennedy was compiling about his father.

“There are times when (Hoover is) allowing the FBI to be used, especially during the Nixon time, when they tried to get more information about Mary Jo Kopechne to discredit Teddy,”
– Doris Kearns Goodwin

There’s evidence in the files that the FBI dug up dirt on Kennedy, too. “There are times when (Hoover is) allowing the FBI to be used, especially during the Nixon time, when they tried to get more information about Mary Jo Kopechne to discredit Teddy,” Goodwin said, referring to the woman who died in Kennedy’s 1969 car crash at Chappaquiddick.

The files show that the FBI didn’t initially look into that accident. They were called in later.

“As the files made clear, Nixon was recognizing and thought that Teddy might be the candidate against him in 1972,” Goodwin said. “It makes sense that he would try to get anything he could that would make things hard for Teddy Kennedy.”

And then there’s that rumor about some kind of sex party involving friends of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. Goodwin could only think of one reason the FBI would have looked into that. “Information was absolutely the fold power for J. Edgar Hoover, and here there does seem to be this one crazy story,” Goodwin said, laughing.

The files, Goodwin says, help her better understand her memories of Kennedy and the decisions he made about his own life — and what she viewed as his fierce determination not to let his life be diminished by fear. Despite the threats and the scrutiny that came with public life, “his own career and his own ambitions and desires to do things for the country, all of that mixed together meant that he was going to go forward anyway,” Goodwin said.

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