serves as Chief Prosecuting Attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and President of Waterkeeper Alliance. He is co-host of Ring of Fire on Air America Radio.
A day after Ted Kennedy addressed the Democratic convention in Denver, the Kennedys gathered at the historic Brown Palace Hotel in Denver to remember another Kennedy, Ted’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy. He was assassinated forty years ago, the night he won the Los Angeles Democratic primary. After the event, I sat down with Robert F. Kennedy’s son, environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. He spoke about torture, impeachment and the most poignant memories of his father. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: One of the most moving events at the Democratic National Convention was the speech delivered by Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy in one of his first public appearances since being diagnosed with brain cancer in May. He flew into Colorado, taken immediately to the University of Denver Hospital. Though his family and doctors had advised against it, he went to the Pepsi Center, accompanied by paramedics and a doctor. On the convention floor, he was accompanied by his niece, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President John Kennedy, and his wife Vicki.
A day after he spoke, the Kennedys gathered at the historic Brown Palace Hotel in Denver to remember another Kennedy, Ted’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, slain forty years ago, the night he won the Los Angeles Democratic primary. After the event, I sat down with his son, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the environmental attorney.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: One of the most poignant memories I have of my father was a trip that we took to Europe when I was about thirteen years old, and we went to Czechoslovokia and Poland and Italy and Greece and France and Germany. And everywhere we went, we were met by vast crowds of people, hundreds of thousands of people, who came out because they wanted to be near an American politician. And it wasn’t just because my father’s brother had been martyred three years before. The same thing happened to Eisenhower when he went to Kabul and Tehran. A million Muslim people met him on the street waving tiny little American flags. And what I remember as a boy is these crowds of people that were just hungry for American leadership, and they — not bullying. They knew the difference. And they were starved for a moral authority. And they proudly named their streets after our presidents, Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln and Roosevelt and Kennedy.
And I remember the day after 9/11, when the headline on the biggest newspaper in France, Le Monde, was “We’re All Americans Now.” And for three weeks after 9/11, thousands of Muslim people came out spontaneously onto the streets of Tehran to make candlelight vigils to show their support, their solidarity, their love for the United States of America. We were the most beloved nation on the face of the earth and in the history of mankind.
And it took 230 years of disciplined visionary leadership by Republican and Democratic presidents to build up those vast reservoirs of public love for our country. And in seven short years, through monumental arrogance and incompetence, this White House has drained those reservoirs dry. We are now, according to virtually every poll, the most hated nation and feared nation on earth. And anybody who says that it’s good for our national security when European youth, as a recent poll showed, hold Osama bin Laden in the same regard as they hold President Bush, and anybody who believes it’s good for our national security when Hezbollah is as popular in the Mideast as America has their head in an oil well.
You know, Abraham Lincoln said America — we’re doing things today that were inconceivable a few years ago. We’re torturing people in America. We’re eavesdropping on our citizens. We are having extraordinary renditions. We’ve suspend habeas corpus. We have these black prisons. And, you know, Abraham Lincoln said that America is a good nation — is a great nation, because we’re a good nation. And he warned that if we ever lose our goodness, we’ll quickly forfeit our greatness as well.
You know, people say in the White House that we have to do these things, because we’re under such terrible threat. But that’s a lie. When I was a little boy, we had 25,000 nuclear-tipped missiles pointing at our country from the Soviet Union with one guy able to press a button and vaporize most of our population. And we weren’t torturing people and eavesdropping on our citizens and suspending habeas corpus. During the Civil War, 659,000 Americans died. Our cities were burned and occupied by foreign — by hostile armies. And we didn’t engage in those kind of behaviors.
You know, during the Revolutionary War, George Washington was approached by his generals with the idea of torturing British soldiers to extract strategic information. At that time, the British were torturing our soldiers in New York Harbor on coffin ships and killing them by the dozens every day. Washington said to them, “I would rather lose the war, because this is the first nation in history that is based upon an idea, and the idea is one of essential human dignity and justice.” And he said, “We’re not — I’d rather the British continue to rule us than become — than to lose that.” And, you know, he established codes of conduct for the treatment of prisoners, fair treatment of prisoners and humane treatment. And the Hessians that he captured on Christmas Eve were so shocked by the good treatment they received from the American captors that after two weeks in prison, they agreed to walk unguarded all the way to POW camps in western Pennsylvania, and not a single one escaped.
During the Civil War, Lincoln’s general suggested — made the suggestion of torture, and he was so horrified by the idea, that he created a committee to establish a standards — a report with standards for the fair treatment and humane treatment of prisoners of war. And eighty years later, that document became the Geneva Convention.
During World War II, Eisenhower was asked about torturing Germans at a time when Nazis were torturing our prisoners and POWs. And Eisenhower said, “Americans don’t do that.” And he said — and during World War II, German soldiers surrendered to American soldiers by the thousands, because they had heard from their fathers, who fought in World War I, “Always surrender to an American, because Americans don’t torture people.”
You know, a few weeks ago, I had John Dean on my show on Air America. And John Dean, as you know, was the counselor to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. And Dean said to me — Dean went to prison for his participation in the cover-up. And he said, “You know, we eavesdropped illegally on one office, and I went to jail for four months, and my boss was impeached and then forced to resign.” And he said, “These people have illegally eavesdropped on hundreds of thousands of Americans.” And he said, “Where’s the impeachment? Where are the convictions? Where’s the imprisonment? Where’s the jail term? Where is the American press? Where is the indignation?”
And, you know, we need to continually remind ourselves that the Bill of Rights is not a luxury we can no longer afford and that America is not just a place where people come to, you know, increase the size of their pile, and whoever dies with the most stuff wins. Our nation is an exemplary nation. And that’s the way the world regards us, and that’s what they want from us. And when we start lowering our standards, we lose our prestige, we lose our capacity to influence world events, and we lose the soul of our country. And we now need to gain that back.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you make of Nancy Pelosi? I mean, the fact is, it’s not the Republicans who control the House and the Senate, it’s the Democrats who do. And she says impeachment is off the table. They say just consider the election a way to get rid of the President.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, I don’t believe it. I think, you know, what I’ve said to Nancy Pelosi publicly and to every Democrat that comes on my show, I say, “Why aren’t we impeaching these people, just as a civics lesson to the American public? You know, we need that. We need to remind people that you cannot trample the Bill of Rights. You cannot ignore your oath of office to protect the Constitution.”
You know, there’s no doubt that they committed a crime. Everybody admits it. When it was FISA, when they — you know, when they illegally eavesdropped, there’s no justification for that. It is a crime, and it’s a high crime. And it’s a high crime that’s prescribed, you know, for — as the basis for impeachment. And they ought to be impeached, just so that nobody does it again. We can’t just keep — you know, if somebody is murdered. You just don’t say, “Well, let it go, and move on. Nobody really wants to deal with a trial and all that problem.” It’s our responsibility as a generation to impeach these people now as a showcase, to show future presidents of the United States that the Bill of Rights is not something that can be trifled with, that the Bill of Rights is not just a luxury that we can no longer afford.
AMY GOODMAN: Perhaps their calculation is they are courting Republicans to leave the Republican Party and vote for a Democrat and that if they polarize the country, that they won’t have that option.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, sometimes you have to do what’s right. And I think, in the long run, it’s the politically smart thing to do, because I think Americans — you know, and I’ve been prosecuting polluters and suing people for years, and when you sue somebody — when you say bad things about somebody, everybody just dismisses it as criticism. But when it becomes a court case, everybody begins taking it seriously. And at this point, you know, it’s clearly the right thing to do, because you can’t let somebody — all of these people, Nancy Pelosi on down, have sworn to protect the Constitution. How can you protect the Constitution when you’re letting somebody violate it and then just say, “Well, we’re going to let this one go, and then we’ll move on to the next one”?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ve just come into a Democratic convention here in Denver, where the Democrats joined with the Republicans in granting retroactive immunity to the corporations like AT&T that spied on the American people. And now, all the delegates carrying around their bag have that logo of AT&T. They’re helping to sponsor this convention.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Oh, I know. Well, I always say that Republicans are 95 percent corrupt, and the Democrats are 75 percent corrupt. And the level of corruption reflects the amount of money, of corporate money, they’re taking. I mean, they’ve got AT&T all over their bags, and they’ve got these clean coal signs that are, you know, up and down the streets, that you get mugged by these clean coal people who are apparently paying for half the convention. So, it’s very disturbing to me, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, your family is divided, right? Caroline Kennedy and your uncle, Ted Kennedy, for Obama; your family is for — has been for Clinton. What are your thoughts right now?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: No, everybody is for Obama. You know, the primaries are over. The day the primaries ended, the last primary ended, we all started working for Obama. And, you know, I said from the beginning, we have two great candidates, and I’m happy supporting either one of them. I believed, for my own reasons, that Hillary Clinton had the best chance of winning the election, but I love Barack Obama. And, you know — and from the beginning, I was defending, you know, him against the Republican attacks, even when I was campaigning for Hillary. They started attacking him for not wearing his flag lapel pin. And, you know, this is so ironic and so absurd that that’s the measure of patriotism. You put on a flag lapel pin so you can free both hands to tear up the Bill of Rights, you know, and that’s really what he’s saying, and he should have stuck with it. But anyway, we’re going to work, and we’re going to try as hard as we can to get him elected, because we need this for America.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re involved in a piece in Rolling Stone right now around voting, the issue of voting all over the country. What are your concerns?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, the Republican Party has put in place a system for suppressing the Democratic vote, particularly African American voters, Hispanic voters and American Indian voters. And there’s fifty different tricks that are using — of legal mechanisms that now make it very, very difficult for those groups to register, then to vote, and third, to get their votes counted. And they’re complex, very sinister, cunning and clever mechanisms that most Americans, almost — most Americans, including most elected officials, don’t even know about. But in the end, they’re going to end up disenfranchising about three million voters, mainly African American, Hispanic, American Indian, senior citizens and elderly, the hard core of the Democratic Party. And so, we’ve done — myself and Greg Palast — I’ve done an analysis, an easy-to-read analysis, which will be published in Rolling Stone, I think in the September 12th issue. I’ve got to go.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you very much.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., son of the slain Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, assassinated forty years ago. Bobby Kennedy, Jr. is chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and president of Waterkeeper Alliance.