Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, brother of JFK and Robert F. Kennedy, died Aug. 26, 2009, after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 77.
NEW YORK - After the violent deaths of his brothers, the youngest Kennedy, Teddy, lived under constant threat that he too would meet an assassin's bullet. As he put it bluntly, “They're going to shoot my ass off the way they shot off Bobby's.”
We expect to learn more about these threats later Monday, when the FBI says it will release 2,352 pages from its file on the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Meanwhile, this article provides background on those threats from previously released FBI files, biographies of Kennedy and an interview with Kennedy historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.
An FBI employee told msnbc.com that the new file is dominated by investigations of threats against Ted Kennedy, who died Aug. 25 at age 77. The file was requested by msnbc.com and other news organizations under the Freedom of Information Act. After a kerfuffle over the FBI's decision to let the Kennedy family review the file before release, the FBI said today that no information was withheld from the file.
A smaller file will be released later, mostly relating to investigations of Kennedy, with information from various field offices, an FBI employee said. The bureau long ago released its main file on Sen. Kennedy's traffic accident at Chappaquiddick, Mass., which killed Mary Jo Kopechne, a former campaign aide to his brother, Robert. A small amount of additional material on Chappaquiddick could be in Monday's release.
'He just couldn't live his life that way'
Goodwin, the historian whose husband worked for the Kennedy family for years, told msnbc.com that she recalls the subject of assassination being discussed openly as Ted Kennedy began to seek the presidency in 1980.
“I remember in 1980, when he was running in the presidential primaries, we were at his house on Cape Cod and the questions came up,” Goodwin said. “As friends, the question came up, and it may well have been that some of his kids were worried about it. He said he just couldn't live his life that way. I think Lincoln said, 'I can't live my life looking around corners.'
“At a certain point you just make that decision that you will not allow yourself to be afraid, that life would be diminished if they allowed themselves to live that way.”
'You will die'
Previously released FBI files document a spate of threats against Ted Kennedy in the weeks after Robert Kennedy's assassination in June 1968, and five years after their older brother, President John F. Kennedy, was killed. Several of the letters appeared to be written in the same hand. They were postmarked in Boston.
One letter was sent to Ethel Kennedy, Robert's widow, at her home, known as Hickory Hill, in McLean, Va. It said only this: “If Ted runs for Pres. or VP he will be killed. We hate Kennedys. Stop him.”
Two letters received by the senator's office, said, “Don't run for President or Vice President or you will be shot dead too.” And, “You will die if you run for Pres or VP. We hate Kennedys.”
‘Your suffering has hardly begun’
The letter-writers also targeted the senator's invalid father, former Ambassador Joseph Kennedy Sr. One said simply, “Do you propose 'Tedd' [sic] to be the next victim?"
A longer letter to the elder Kennedy, who had suffered a stroke and the assassination of two sons, began, “Your suffering has hardly begun. Teddy is next on the Kennedy 'hit parade.' And we won't rest until he gets his. We are sick of the Kennedy's [sic] and all the damn Kennedy crap.”
After attacks on the elder Kennedy as a “crook,” the letter continues, “You thought you could buy the presidency — and did once. America doesn't like or want dynasties. Jack had to die. Bobby had to die. Teddy has to die. We hope you live long enough to see total destruction of the Kennedy's [sic] and to suffer again and again before you die and go to Hell for all eternity.”
An FBI memo says an assistant U.S. attorney gave the opinion that the letters to the father were not illegal, because they were vague, not making a specific threat.
Another letter was sent in June 1968 to Adlai Stevenson III, the Illinois state treasurer, who was involved in preparations for the Democratic convention in Chicago. “You will have blood on your hands. If he accepts the VP nomination he will die. A few of us Americans love our country enough to protect it from all threats and the Kennedy family is a terrible menace to America.”
Previously released FBI files revealed that the FBI investigated threats to kidnap the former president's son, John F. Kennedy Jr., in 1985 and 1995. He died in an airplane crash in 1999.
That summer a different sort of letter was sent to Joseph Kennedy, demanding $1 million. The letter, from a Merrilli Syndicate in Boston, claimed that the group conducted assassinations for hire and had received a bid for $500,000 to kill Ted Kennedy. “The only method of saving your son is by outbidding the proposed deal.”
It gave specific instructions: “The money should be placed in a modern breifcase [sic] and placed behind a telephone pole accross [sic] the road from the newly-built home on Pleasant Hill Road in Orange, Connecticut. Our corporation will expect the currency by noon of Thursday, June 20. A guard will be posted to assure of no foul play. The money will most preferably be accepted in fifty dollar bills. Certainly a man with one son left cannot risk or foolishly gamble his life.”
The FBI reported that this extortion letter wasn't noticed until September, long after the scheduled payoff, because of the great volume of mail received by the family after Robert's murder. The FBI investigated in Boston, New York and Orange, but turned up nothing. There is no Pleasant Hill Road in Orange. The FBI said it had no information on a Merrilli Syndicate.
'Someone might take a shot at him'
Former Kennedy aide Richard E. Burke, who started working in the mailroom at the Senate office in 1971, describes the frequency of hate mail in his tell-all book, “The Senator: My Ten Years With Ted Kennedy”:
“Once I opened an envelope to find a mouse leg inside. Another correspondent sent the Senator a used condom. All of this aberrational material went into the box labeled HATE MAIL. If there seemed to be a truly alarming threat in the mail, the letter and envelope were turned over to the FBI and the Secret Service.”
Always on alert, the receptionist at the Kennedy office had an alarm buzzer to alert the staff to bolt the doors protecting the inner office, where Ted Kennedy sat at a desk used by John and Robert before him, Burke wrote.
A stalker in the house
In 1979, a stalker got into Ted Kennedy's house in McLean twice, roaming the empty house.
“The incident was a reminder of how vulnerable the Senator was, and it was perhaps the most serious argument against a presidential campaign,” Burke said. “The Senator had to face the reality that someone might take a shot at him. Hickory Hill, with Ethel and her eleven fatherless children, was a stark reminder of the price of being a candidate.”
New York Times reporter Adam Clymer, in his “Edward M. Kennedy: a biography,” described how Kennedy said in 1972, “They're going to shoot my ass off the way they shot off Bobby's.”
Kennedy decided he would risk getting shot to enter the 1980 campaign, Clymer wrote, but after the threats he received, the fears of Kennedy's children and nieces and nephews were a major factor in his decision not to seek the presidency in 1984.
His first wife, Joan, told the Ladies' Home Journal, “Frankly, I worry all the time about whether Ted will be shot like Jack and Bobby.” Her husband, she said, “tries to keep things from me — serious threats against his life ... that kind of news — but I know what's going on.”
As the Kennedy family was well aware, the most dangerous people were not necessarily the ones sending threats. A 1999 Secret Service study of 83 people who made assassination attempts against public figures in America found that not only 27 had conveyed a direct threat to anyone, and only eight of those had communicated such a threat to the target or to law enforcement. Most attackers don't make threats, and most threateners don't attack.
'I am an authority on violence'
The husband of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Dick Goodwin, in his book “Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties,” describes being with Robert Kennedy in South America, after Jack's murder, when there was a noise, a car backfire or some other noise, and Robert flinched. “That would be an involuntary reaction, visceral,” Doris Kearns Goodwin said.
But the Kennedys were forced to think about their own mortality. “I am an authority on violence,” Ted Kennedy said in a speech to Vietnam War protesters at Yale. “All it brings is pain and suffering, and there is no place for that in our society.”
His experience included not only the death of John at age 46, when Ted rode to the cemetery with Jackie.
And not only the death of Robert at 42, when Ted rode on the train that carried his brother's body back to Washington.
Their older brother, Joe Jr., was killed on a bombing run in England during World War II, at age 29. Ted later stood on the deck of the Navy destroyer Joseph P. Kennedy, named for the first Kennedy child to die.
Their sister Kathleen died in a plane crash at 28 in France after the war.
Further pain came from the memory of their oldest sister, Rosemary, who was lobotomized and hidden away in an institution at age 23, when young Eddie, as his family knew him, was just 9. Rosemary lived another 60-plus years, to age 86.
“If you've got that belief in God, your time's going to come when it comes,” Doris Kearns Goodwin said. “I remember their mother Rose was always saying, if her children could come back, they would still choose to be the same people. All they were lacking was length of years.”
Others among the nine Kennedy children lived much longer: Ted to 77, Eunice Kennedy Shriver to 88, and Jean Kennedy Smith is the only survivor from her generation, now 82.
The Kennedys and the FBI
The FBI agreed to allow the Kennedy family to review the file before release, and to object to the release of certain information that might violate the privacy of surviving relatives, The Boston Globe reported on April 12. The FBI would consider the family's objections, an FBI spokesman told the newspaper, as it has in other rare cases involving families of crime victims.
The FBI “may coordinate the release of certain material with the family,’’ spokesman Dennis Argall told the Globe. ”The family of a deceased person may have a privacy interest.”
“But the reason can’t simply be that it is embarrassing” information about Kennedy himself, Argall told the newspaper.
That was in April.
In mid-May, an FBI employee handling the release at the FBI's FOIA office in West Virginia notified all the requesters that the file would be released on May 28. The file was ready to be delivered to the FBI's Internet staff for posting.
But on May 25, the FBI notified the requesters again that there would be a delay, that the file needed further review.
Was that review by the Kennedy family? Has the family requested that any information be withheld? Will any information be withheld? The FBI won't say.
"We will not be commenting on the release of Senator Ted Kennedy's FBI files other than to say that they are not yet ready for release," spokesman Bill Carter said in an e-mail on May 25.
On that day, msnbc.com filed a new FOIA request, seeking all records relating to the release of the Kennedy file, including any information about discussions between the family and the FBI or Justice Department.
And on June 10, the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch sued the FBI, demanding the full file.
Today, the FBI said the full file would be released -- with no information withheld at the family's request.
The FBI told requesters several months ago that it planned to release 3,010 pages. In mid-May, it said only 2,352 pages will be released, but that the 658-page gap is explained mostly by culling of duplicate pages, which are common in investigative files. In addition, some material will be released later, after review by other agencies.
There was a long association between the Kennedy patriarch and the FBI, which listed Joseph Kennedy Sr. as a “special service contact” in its Boston field office. The former ambassador had offered to provide information on suspected Communists and other people though his contacts in diplomacy, the motion picture and shipbuilding and liquor industries, and his other businesses. His FBI file shows he aided the bureau in several cases from 1943 on. Joseph Kennedy invited the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, to the weddings of his children, and they exchanged many personal letters.
In 1961, when his son was president, Kennedy called the FBI to check his Chicago hotel room, which he was sure was bugged; the FBI found nothing. Later, Robert Kennedy and Hoover fought an extended battle over the choice of the FBI's main target: the Mafia or Communists.
A special agent in Chicago quoted the elder Kennedy as saying, “The FBI is the only decent agency in the government and the rest of them are not worth a good G.D.”
Other Kennedy files
The FBI said the new file will be posted Monday on its hot topics page.
Here are the previously released FBI files on the Kennedy family, combined into fewer PDF files for easier access.