What Obama Needs
© Jack Cashill
Newsweek’s antediluvian groupie/reporter Eleanor Clift titled her post-Iowa, Obama gush piece, “Reviving Camelot,” and she was hardly unique in dredging up the analogy.
Senator Barack Obama can be forgiven for relishing the comparison. It is unlikely that he knows the Kennedy brothers’ record on civil rights, especially the record of Bobby Kennedy, the mischievous younger brother.
Indeed not since Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General Mitchell Palmer hung up his battering ram did any AG so thoroughly ignore constitutional niceties as did RFK.
There are many stories one can tell—It was Bobby, after all, who ordered the FBI to tap Martin Luther King, not Hoover—but the one that intrigues most involves the wonderfully controversial General Edwin Walker.
Students of the JFK assassination know Walker best for his role as a reported near miss in Lee Harvey Oswald’s pre-assassination target practice.
Whether true or not, Walker played an even more dramatic role in American history on at least two occasions, the latter of which involved Bobby in the most flamboyant high-level abuse of civil liberties in recent history.
A legitimate hero in both World War II and Korea, General Walker first entered the national stage in September 1957 when he successfully oversaw the admission of nine black students into Little Rock’s Central High
A states right activist, Walker did not want to be in Little Rock, but he did his job under President Eisenhower’s direction with skill and without complaint.
In 1961, however, the Kennedy White House relieved Walker of his command for his arguably over-aggressive effort to educate his troops about communism.
Walker promptly resigned from the military and suspended his Army benefits so that he could pursue his anti-communism in good conscience. In September 1962, that pursuit took him to the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford.
In Oxford, the outrageously courageous black Air Force veteran, James Meredith, was attempting to enroll at the university.
Through sheer will power, and against the wishes of the Kennedy White House, Meredith had managed to pull the full force of the federal government behind his effort.
Unfortunately for Meredith, President Kennedy had deputized Bobby to supervise the military build up needed to back down Mississippi belligerent governor, Ross Barnett, and his state police.
This preposterous field promotion unnerved the military and with good reason. The last time the Kennedy brothers touched a military adventure it turned into the Bay of Pigs.
The brothers would handle the enrollment of Meredith no more ably. Those interested in this story would do well to read William Doyle’s excellent 2001 account, An American Insurrection.
Once in charge, as Doyle recounts, Bobby authorized “one of the most outrageous orders ever issued in the history of the U.S. Army.”
For political reasons, Bobby re-segregated the military. Hoping to pacify the Rebel wing of the Democratic Party, Bobby ordered all black troops to stand down.
Not surprisingly, this order thoroughly demoralized the troops and their officers, black and white, and seriously undermined the Army’s ability to function.
While the military reshuffled its ranks, Bobby sent an under-manned, under-trained, ill-equipped crew of Federal Marshals and prison guards on a veritable suicide mission to escort the fearless Meredith.
Worse, as Doyle reports, “In the rush to mobilize the U.S. Marshals, nobody remembered to tell the most crucial player in the drama: the U.S. Army.”
As should have been expected, all hell broke loose during Meredith’s first night on campus. Thousands of crazed locals and imported Klansmen attacked the administration building and the Marshals who defended it. Six of the Marshals were shot; 160 others were injured.
Into this toxic mess wandered General Walker. Although a case could be made for his constitutional protest against federal encroachment, Walker picked a dubious hill on which to plant the states rights banner.
Walker’s actions that night remain in dispute. The Associated Press claimed that Walker led a charge against the Marshals, but a federal jury would later rule the AP’s claim false and defamatory.
Doyle, who has done the best research on the subject, concedes that Walker tried hard to suppress the violence that his presence on campus helped incite and quotes several of his speeches to that effect.
When Walker asked the mob to protest peacefully, however, the mob turned on Walker. The next morning, his protest registered, General Walker casually attempted to leave town.
He was not able. The U.S. Army, as Doyle relates, stopped Walker at a checkpoint, as instructed, and handed him off to the Marshals for arrest.
Future Carter cabinet member Joseph Califano tells the rest of the story in his 2005 memoir, Inside: A Public and Private Life.
In 1962, Califano was a special assistant to Cyrus Vance, the Secretary of the Army. As he reports, Walker was dispatched to a federal psychiatric hospital after his arrest, which The New York Times found “unusual.”
“What the Times didn’t know,” continues Califano, “was that the attorney general had decided that Walker was not getting back on the street.”
“Whatever it takes to keep him locked up in the hospital,” Kennedy informed Califano, “that’s what we need.”
"There was no discussion of Walker's rights," Califano recalls, "no echoes of the right to bail that was stressed in my criminal law course at Harvard.”
The White House had arranged to keep Walker locked in a psychiatric hospital Soviet-style for as long as ninety days but relented after a week when order was restored on campus.
The unlikely heroes of this story were the young men of the Mississippi National Guard who, to a person, honored their federalization orders and helped suppress the insurrection that first fiery night.
The reshuffled and re-segregated military showed up as quick as humanly possible, but, as Califano ruefully admits, “Both Kennedy brothers were furious with the Army.”
At the Pentagon, however, Califano and his colleagues were told “to keep our mouths shut and not admit any deficiencies.”
Even if they had talked, though, who would have listened? One unspoken point of comparison between Obama and John Kennedy has been the adulation of the reporting press.
To understand JFK’s hold on the media, consider that his approval ratings went up 11 points after the Bay of Pigs.
The mess at Mississippi caused no problems either. In October 1962 the media quickly buried the Mississippi story and elevated the shaky story of the Cuban Missile Crisis at month’s end to instant myth.
A president with the media in his pocket can do just about anything he pleases. And that is the real danger of Barack Obama.
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