My JFK Ethics Tale

 Shredded Files

As regular readers here  know, I am not an admirer of the character of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, though he had some notable leadership skills that I respect. His reputation as a great man and President is vastly inflated and, in a strange way, I may share some of the responsibility for that.

Several years ago, I had just completed an ethics seminar for the DC Bar. One of the issues I discussed was the lawyer’s ethical duty to protect  attorney-client confidences in perpetuity, even after the death of the client. An elderly gentleman approached me, and said he had an important question to ask. He was retired, he said, and teased that I would want to hear his story. I don’t generally give out ethics advice on the fly like this, but I was intrigued.

“My late law partner, long before he began working with me, was Joseph P. Kennedy’s “‘fixer,'” he began, hooking me immediately. “Whenever Jack, Bobby or Teddy got in trouble, legal or otherwise, Joe would pay my partner to ‘take care of it,’ whatever that might entail. Well, my partner died last week, and when I saw him for the last time, he gave me the number of a storage facility, the contract, and the combination to the lock. He said that I should take possession of what was in there, and that I would know what to do.

“Well, I did as he said. What I found were crates and boxes of files, all with labels on them relating to the three Kennedy brothers. There are files with the names of famous actresses on them, and some infamous figures too. There is an amazing amount of stuff, and I have to believe that it is a treasure trove for historians and biographers. I am dying to read it myself. So my question to you is this…

“Jack, Bobby, Ted and old Joe are all dead now, and my partner is dead too. What did my late partner mean when he said I would know what to do?”

And I sighed.

“I would love to know what’s in those files myself.” I said. “But assuming that he meant that you would know the right thing to do and trusted you to do it, your only ethical course is to protect those confidences that Joe Kennedy had been assured would always be between him and his attorney. His surviving family members don’t even have a right to know them, and it’s quite possible, even likely, that Joe wouldn’t want them to know what his boys did that required a “fixer.”

“The only ethical course for you is to destroy those files. Unfortunately.”

“I was afraid you would say that,” he said. “Thank you. That’s exactly what I’ll do.”

And he walked away, shaking his head.


23 thoughts on “My JFK Ethics Tale

  1. “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is often interred with their bones.” Julius Caesar by Williams Shakespeare.

    These days it seems to be the other way ’round, as we bestow almost godlike status on those whom we admire, despite the facts. I don’t think Kennedy was a particularly good president, but he was a great politician. But history has a way of repeating itself.

  2. Does not the act of revealing that it took an entire storage unit to maintain files on how much misbehavior of a LEGAL nature needed to covered up for the Kennedy sons not also reveal that there was just that much more we didn’t know about. Does not that also betray, to a point, the confidentiality so desired?

    • Arguably, but even then, it’s de minimus. The old lawyer didn’t tell me the name of his partner. I assumed there was a Kennedy fixer (or ten), assumed there was such a lawyer, and assumed that there would be confidences. I don’t think “my client X has confidences” is much of a breach, if any. And I wouldn’t assume all that stuff involved misbehavior of a legal nature.

  3. Perhaps I am picking nits here, but, in your scenario, who is the client?
    Was it Joe?
    Was it Jack, Bobby and Teddy?
    That may be an important distinction because you are focusing on Joe’s wishes when he may not be the client (in every scenario).
    Is there any exception to the Rules of Confidentiality? Was the lawyer’s services used to commit a fraudulent act such that disclosure may be needed to rectify the fraud.
    I don’t know. If there were actresses named, etc., they could come forward, even if they had been paid hush-money. Disclosure of those things is probably inappropriate.
    I would have told them that he needed to read through all of those files.
    Better yet, you could have suggested he to retain you to conduct a professional review of his ethical duties with respect to each and every page of those files.

  4. I always wondered if their wives knew just exactly what they were getting into. Mainly Jackie and Joan. Skakel seemed to fit right in.

  5. A friend and occasional poster here writes that this post is bad taste to appear on 11/22. I can understand that point of view. Still, this is about the only time I think about JFK, and it reminded me of an ethics issue with an interesting story attached. The national reluctance to admit who Kennedy was just isn’t healthy, and if this day wasn’t so dripping in historical revisionism, maybe I would have waited until tomorrow. I probably should have.

    • No.

      Not talking about it gives in to those who are engaged in the gross beatification of Kennedy. As well as all the latest lies that have been invented doing everything possible to associate the assassination with the modern right wing and conservative movements.

      • Read ‘Family of Secrets’ by Russ Baker… It’s because it IS associated w the modern / Texas oil / skull & bones / black ops security state. The worm turned when the Dulles brothers recruited nazis & Americans helping the Germans via corporations before & during WWII. Kennedy pissed off the wrong group of peeps. But the origins are ‘Prescott Pharmaceuticals’ from the 1920s.

        • Jack,

          I quietly ran a timer for the first conspiracist to pop off after your first post in relation to JFK. I’m impressed, much longer than anticipated.

          Blame Blake,


    • It’s appropriate to bring up both the good and the bad when the topic is current. If your point is true and can be defended. Fifty years is long enough that there’s no realistic expectation of worshipful silence about the bad stuff.

  6. Would the ethical requirement change when they become public officials? I can understand this when they are private citizens, but does the public not have some claim to those materials related to the time period when they are public officials (in particular, I am thinking of the public benefit gained by learning from history regarding public officials who influenced the affairs (sorry for the pun) of their day)?

    (By the way, I love the blog . . . I’ve been reading for a while and learning lots.)

  7. Well, I’m sure J. Edgar Hoover had enough on the family he could have used if he would have wanted to. Jack had some good qualities: The PT 109 episode revealed that. But then again, John McCain was probably braver than him and I don’t like him much. The lawyer did the right thing I guess. Still, the family was rotten to the core and it started with Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.

    • J. Edgar Hoover left instructions to destroy his files, which his longtime secretary did, and he was no lover of the Kennedy’s. Of course, his files had dirt on a lot of people. But Hoover knew they had to be destroyed. The journalist in me wants to read all these Kennedy files! But I do not think it is right for the law partner to make them public. A lawyer (law firm) is as good as his (it’s) word to his clients. I certainly would want to be treated that way.

      • I guess I’m not that much interested in JFK and his family anyway. I’m just sick of the media pandering to them and asserting that he was “the bestest President” He wasn’t and frankly I don’t care if a lawyer lets a journalist have access to his families dirty secrets. Enough hagiography!

  8. I admired some things about him, but maybe I was born a little too late to buy into Camelot. I know him as much for the escalation in Vietnam. I might regret that he died, but I think if more likely his 2nd term would have been as contentious as LBJ’s term was.

    • I respectfully disagree, Farmstead. Jack Kennedy had many faults, but Johnson made him look like Jack Armstrong in comparison. It was LBJ, not Kennedy, who decided to make Vietnam an American war with a vast conscript army. Kennedy was for using the proven method (by the British in Malaya) of low intensity counter insurgency, with the backup of host country conventional forces. That was what his creation of the Special Forces was all about. Johnson just wanted a splashy victory for which he could take political credit. Of course, it backfired on him big time, due to his political goals being ascendant over military ones.

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