Jack Keeney: A Venerable Government Employee

Jack Keeney is a respected career official at the Justice Department and one of the longest-serving career employees in the history of the federal government. He has worked in the Department's criminal division under 11 presidents and 21 attorneys general.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And next, we're going to meet a man who's one of the longest-serving career employees in the history of the federal government. He just marked his 60th year of public service.

Jack Keeney has worked in the Justice Department's Criminal Division under 11 presidents and 21 attorneys general.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has this profile.

ARI SHAPIRO: There are a lot of buildings in Washington that are named after politicians or people who are deceased. But the building I'm standing in front of right now, 1301 New York Avenue, is very unusual in that it's named after somebody who is still alive and still working in the federal government as a career employee - John C. Keeney or Jack Keeney.

Mr. JOHN C. KEENEY (Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division, U.S. Department of Justice): And here's President Clinton and there's President Reagan giving me a presidential award. These are my…

SHAPIRO: Keeney's second floor office at the Justice Department is full of photographs and memorabilia mapping his career. There's an image of the World War II bomber he was shot down in and autographed pictures of presidents next to snapshots of his grandkids.

To reach Keeney's office today, visitors have to go through a full body scan and keep an escort with them at all times. When Keeney started working here halfway through the last century, it was very different.

Mr. KEENEY: When I started, bums off the street, would wander in and it wouldn't have any problem getting into the department.

SHAPIRO: Today, people described Keeney as the Justice Department's walking encyclopedia, or the oracle of past decisions made. But when he arrived on the job, he was just another prosecutor. In the 1950s, he worked on communism cases. Some were against party leaders, and some were contempt of Congress prosecutions against people who refused to testify based on their First Amendment right to free speech rather than a Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

Mr. KEENEY: Well, looking back on them, I'm not so sure that we needed to do it, but that was the prevailing sentiment. We did accelerate the obliteration of the Communist Party in the United States, but on reflection, I'm not sure it wouldn't have self-distracted.

SHAPIRO: In the '60s, Bobby Kennedy became attorney general. Now, Keeney won't say who his favorite attorney general has been - after all, some of them were his close friends. But he will say.

Mr. KEENEY: The most fascinating one was Robert Kennedy, obviously.

SHAPIRO: Before Kennedy, Justice Department lawyers had almost no access to the attorney general. When Kennedy took control, he instituted regular meetings with the line attorneys. Keeney moved to the organized crime section, which was one of Kennedy's top priorities. They met once a week. And Keeney says when a lawyer had a problem, say, the IRS wasn't cooperating with a prosecution, Kennedy wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty.

Mr. KEENEY: He'd pick up the phone and call the head of the Internal Revenue Service who happened to be one of his professors in the law school.

SHAPIRO: By the late '70s, Keeney was already becoming revered in the words of former Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann. Heymann became head of the criminal division in 1978. And when Attorney General Griffin Bell would ask Heymann to come up to his office to discuss a criminal matter…

Mr. PHILIP HEYMANN (Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General): My chest would sort of puff up because I liked being asked for advice by Judge Bell, and he would say, and Phil? And I'd say, yes, Judge Bell. He'd say, bring Jack Keeney with you, please.

SHAPIRO: Another one of Keeney's biggest fans and closest friends is David Margolis, who's been at Justice for more than 40 years.

Mr. DAVID MARGOLIS (Associate Deputy Attorney General, Justice Department): People joked with me that I've been waiting for him to retire so I can take the mantle, and so I'm told they now call me Prince Charles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARGOLIS: I think I'll never get that crown.

SHAPIRO: Margolis notes with some sadness that he does not see a new generation of Jack Keeney's coming up through the ranks. He says when he started public service, Justice Department's lawyers were revered - maybe even too much.

Mr. MARGOLIS: That certainly isn't the case today, and I think it's going through the other extreme and there's - in Washington, it's a tough place to live and work. So with all that in mind, I don't see people staying as long anymore.

SHAPIRO: And former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick warns that without people like Jack Keeney, political leaders actually cannot do their jobs.

Ms. JAMIE GORELICK (Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General): The trick is not to drive them out. And, you know, I think, it's very important to take stock of how many of those people are - have remained and to make sure that we take good care of them because they are the bearers of the values and culture of the Justice Department.

SHAPIRO: The Justice Department doesn't have to worry about Keeney retiring soon. At age 85, he says he'll stay on the job as long as his health lets him. As former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh puts it…

Mr. DICK THORNBURGH (Former U.S. Attorney General): Attorneys general have come and gone, but Jack still steams on.

SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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