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Ellis: RFK Jr. and the changing nature of our politics

Independent presidential candidate Robert Kennedy Jr. 

by Kevin Ellis

It is time to discuss and grapple with Robert Kennedy Jr. 

Last week, Kennedy declared his candidacy for president as an independent, breaking away from the Democratic party and labeling it corrupt and controlled by venal corporations. For the record, he said the same about the Republicans. Indeed, he labeled the entire political system a stew of corruption and paralysis.

Watching Washington, DC right now, it is hard to disagree.

The traditional media, the TV networks, NY Times etc., have taken their look at Kennedy and given him many labels: crank, conspiracy theorist, dangerous, and anti-vax. That list includes the fabulous writer Rebecca Traister, whose New York Magazine piece on Kennedy kept me up at night for its analysis of Kennedy. 

To others, he is a truth-teller, a revolutionary, unwilling to adhere to the dogmas of the past, what his father called the “worn-out slogans’’ of modern politics. 

For me, it’s more complicated than all that. 

But before we jump to our own conclusions, let’s back up and deal with the history. Kennedy’s history is filled with brilliance and a strange lifelong connection to death and tragedy that make him a compelling, possibly dangerous figure. 

There are two Robert Kennedy Jrs. really. The first is a crusading lawyer on behalf of the poor and unpowerful. And then there is version 2.0, labeled a conspiracy monger, loose with the facts. It’s the 2.0 we read about today in mainstream media. But his career deserves a deeper look. 

As you most likely know, Robert Kennedy Jr. is the son of the late US Senator and US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. He is the nephew of President John F. Kennedy. And he is the nephew of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, arguably the most impactful (if flawed) senator in US History, whose name is on more pieces of legislation than anyone. 

And as you also most likely know, Kennedy’s uncle, the president, was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, an event that still captivates many and changed the course of history. Five years later, his father was also killed in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen after winning the California presidential primary. The country was coming apart over the Vietnam War. Earlier that year, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Two years later, four students at Kent State University were killed by Ohio National Guardsman ordered to fire live bullets.

Kennedy’s father had been a law and order attorney general but after the death of his brother, the president, driven by grief and curiosity, he changed his views. In his campaign for president, Kennedy became emotionally vulnerable. He began to understand that poverty and war-making held no future for America. 

If you look back, Robert Kennedy said some things deemed crazy in 1966. He asked whether cash bail for criminal defendants was appropriate. He attacked the police for arresting people with no charge. He sat with hunger-striking farm workers in California. He challenged the racist regime in South Africa. And he decried a country with our wealth that allows its people to go hungry while we “lavish money on armaments everywhere.’’

You can take it from me. I have read every book about the first RFK. And I mean every speech. It’s a passion of mine. Kennedy’s speech at the University of Kansas criticizing the people of America for our wealth while we tolerate poverty brings tears to my eyes. His speech in South Africa is captivating. His explanation to university students at Columbia University about why he was running for the US Senate is the best explanation for someone to run for public office I have ever heard. 

Listening to Robert Kennedy makes you wonder what would have happened had he been president. And you know for sure that there has never been anyone like him, not Obama, not Clinton, not Biden. 

Robert Kennedy Jr.’s path has been rocky, to say the least. He was kicked out of private schools. He is a heroin addict (now sober), and he has survived multiple family tragedies that would destroy anyone: assassinations, the death of a spouse by suicide, the deaths of two brothers, one from a drug overdose.

I have met him twice. He would not remember me. But being in close proximity to him is a strange experience. He is voracious about everything. He turns eating a cheeseburger into an almost carnal act. 

He is – like his father – righteous. There is evil in the world. And it must be stopped. And if you just look at that part of him, Robert Kennedy Jr. version 1.0, he looks pretty good.  

He has a lust for knowledge that led him from addiction and privilege to a fight for the underdog. The man has had a serious impact on this country’s environmental movement. 

He emerged from addiction to become a crusading lawyer. For 40 years he has fought corporate power and its influence on government.  

He founded the Riverkeeper organization and worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council to stop companies like General Electric from dumping cancer-causing PCBs in the Hudson River.

He has championed the rights of native people in Canada and the U.S. as companies built hydroelectric dams to generate power for cities. 

He has sued Monsanto for its use of glyphosate in corn that causes cancer in humans. 

He has sued on the part of small fishermen in Mexico to practice their trade when giant companies sought to put them out of business.

He opposes factory farming and has been a champion of healthy soil, clean air, and water. 

He is brilliant. I have never seen anyone recite policy programs and statistics from memory as he does. 

His record is real but it is buried deep in press stories or forgotten altogether because of the other stuff. Other stuff that is just as real, and belongs to the second version of Kennedy Jr. 

Robert Kennedy Jr. 2.0 denounces Dr. Anthony Fauci for his work on the COVID pandemic. He links vaccines with autism. He attacks the public health system as bought and paid for by corporations. He decries the mandatory shutdown during COVID. And he opposes what the US is doing in Ukraine. 

Kennedy chairs and founded a non-profit called Children’s Health Defense, which casts doubt on vaccines and masks and their accepted use in society. The vaccine to autism link is not provable in my view. But lots of people agree with him. 

But as I listen to what he’s actually saying, I’ve noticed that Kennedy mostly talks about making vaccines safer and calls on the Centers for Disease Control and the FDA to be more transparent about their research. 

Many in his own family, at least two sisters and his older brother oppose his candidacy. They call his campaign dangerous.  

But Kennedy Jr. will not be denied. He sees a party ossified by old white men corrupted by the system and the corporate money that infects that system.  

Robert Kennedy Jr. is a pain in the neck for THE SYSTEM. Established officials see him as dangerous. They believe he will take votes away from Biden and give us Trump. (Maybe) He is anti-vax (not really). 

When it comes to modern politics, he is accurately describing a system that no longer works. (Congress)  He is neither a wild-eyed radical nor a conspiracy-mongering conservative, at least no more than the next person. It eludes me that Kennedy can be more dangerous for his attacks on Dr. Fauci than an 81-year-old President Biden running for re-election. 

Is Biden any less delusional than Kennedy? Any less egotistical to think that he should run again?

Watch Kennedy’s speech from last week. It’s here. It’s long. But it is a seminar on what ails American politics. 

As you watch, you can almost go down a checklist of essential lines from his own father’s speech in 1966 in South Africa where he said:  “These are not ordinary times.’’

Here is what he promises:

  • Peace and diplomacy first. 
  • Close tax loopholes for corporations. 
  • Rescue debtors instead of the banks during the next financial crisis. 
  • Clean up our soil, water and air. 
  • Unravel the corporate capture of our regulatory agencies. 
  • Enact policies outside the partisan conversation. 
  • Fight for small farms.
  • Tamper proof election system that guarantees everyone the right to vote. 

I likely won’t vote for Kennedy. The mixture of dysfunction, privilege, tragedy, trauma, and proximity to danger is too much at some level. That combination makes me uncomfortable, not to mention I don’t believe we should take a sledgehammer to our public health system. 

But it won’t do to ignore him. He appeals to a vast swath of Americans, fed up with a system that doesn’t serve them; Trump voters, liberals, and especially young people who have sworn off politics altogether.

A 34-year-old New Yorker said to me recently after watching Kennedy’s announcement speech: “Tell me why I shouldn’t vote for him.’’ I had no good answer. 

It is very hard to judge Kennedy in our social media-fueled, hate-filled, tribal political-media universe. But here goes.

He is 69, has plenty of money, and can afford to speak his truth learned from a lifetime growing up at the most political dinner table in the world. But he also has a 40-year career of suing powerful interests on behalf of people with little power. I believe that voice is a good thing in a Democracy.

Kennedy’s campaign, if only partially successful, presents dozens of scenarios. And everyone will be talking about this for the next year. So prepare for this:

  • A former president indicted on dozens of federal charges is running for president while facing the possibility of prison time. (Trump)
  • A current president in his 80s is running for re-election despite back-room wishing by millions that he step aside for the next generation. (Note – Joe Biden was read death-bed rights by a priest after not one but two brain surgeries in 1988. We don’t hear much about that.)
  • And the son and nephew of two assassinated Kennedys, with a penchant for brilliance and danger, is now running for president as an Independent, trying to speak to the same disaffected Americans his father spoke to in 1968. 

Welcome to the next phase of American politics gone mad. Bobby Kennedy Jr. is not mad. He is scarred and traumatized and wounded. A therapist’s dream. But he is right on a lot of issues. American politics best pay attention to what he says. 

I may not vote for him. But I am listening. 

11 replies »

  1. While talking about the evolution of RFK the auther missed the version that supported “our friend in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez”. That one pretty much said it all to me !

  2. Well written and interesting perspective that likely voices what many of us are thinking.

  3. RFK Jr. is nothing more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This is what he stands for:
    Drilling Ban
    Fracking Ban
    Nuclear Ban
    Green Subsidies
    Gun Control
    High Taxes

  4. RFK Jr. is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is no conservative by any means. He is for:
    Drilling Ban
    Fracking Ban
    Nuclear Ban
    Green Subsidies
    Gun Control
    High Taxes
    High Spending
    Single Payer Healthcare
    Funding the W.H.O
    Increased VISAS
    Military Cuts
    Birthright Citizenship
    Reparations for Blacks

    Changing the nature of our politics. really?

    • James, this list you wrote is your interpretation of what RFK Jr stands for. It is as incorrect as the lists that those on the left who are threatened by him would write, which would be very different from your list, but equally incorrect.

      What makes Kennedy different and truly independent is the NUANCE and CONTEXT that he provides with his answers to societal problems and people’s questions. Our society these days has become so dumbed down that everything is seen in black and white terms, sound bites, memes, and commercial PR. True intellectuals who have something interesting and intelligent to say are simply not around, or if they are, they are not heard, or, in the case of Kennedy, they are censored and reduced to simple statements such as yours as well as the lies about him published in most of the mainstream media.

      The problem is that most people who think they are against what Kennedy says and wants, are NOT LISTENING to him, or not listening to him IN FULL (as in: whole speeches or interviews). I have listened to and read what he has to say a great deal, and I find him absolutely brilliant, authentic, generally open-minded (he’s willing to change his mind if he is convinced by evidence), very courageous, and has been able to overcome any challenge via misinterpretation of what he says with intelligent and fact-filled replies that he can support with evidence, and always manages to overcome these mendacious criticisms with his truths. There is NO OTHER candidate on the scene who can match all of those qualities. He has personal skeletons in his closet (who doesn’t?), but is open about them. Even if one doesn’t agree with him on one issue, one is likely to agree with him on many others.

      I see him as a breath of fresh air in a stale and toxic political environment, and I view him as the ONLY alternative who has the potential to lead us out of the hell that we have created for ourselves in this country and the world. I encourage everyone, from the left, right, or middle, to put on your open-minded hat and really LISTEN IN FULL to what he is ACTUALLY saying!! You may be surprised at what you hear and how you react – and you will not turn back.

  5. No thank you notsettledscience, as far as I’m concerned when I heard RFK Jr. (with my own ears) say he was for instituting an “assault weapons ban” I kicked him to the curb.

    KrisAnn Hall, JD: “If society is honest and historically accurate, the only question that has any relevance to the gun control debate is, do you trust those in government, now and in the future, to not take your life, liberty or property thru force of government? If the answer to that question is “no”, the gun control debate is over”.

    • James, if that is the only issue you are basing your voting on, and you haven’t engaged with this issue with him to see if he’s offering any fuller context on that issue, then, yes, you wouldn’t want to vote for him. There are MANY important issues aside from that one, and absolutely no single candidate anywhere can please every voter on all those issues. If you are a one-issue voter and don’t wish to look further, then you know what to do. If you look at the bigger picture and all the issues, I think you can’t do better than Kennedy, and this world is fortunate that he has come along.

      • Yes, I am a one issue voter. I’m for the preservation and following of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I consider, as per my oath, that elected officials that cannot protect the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to be Domestic Enemies.
        The main purpose of government is to preserve our rights and do not take any of them away in increments until we wake up one day with none.

  6. No way, he is a Democrat through and through. I would however be happy to see him as the head of CDC/NIH.

  7. Yes – it is time to grapple. Kennedy is leading a people-powered movement that has grown tired of corporate control. He is very common sense, and was born and raised to be a world leader, even if he had some livin and learnin to do first. Experience Kennedy, rather than the same old flavors.
    – on the environment:
    “..we shoulder the costs through damaged health care, through damaged environment, through diminished lives, through diminished property values when somebody pollutes. What environmental laws are intended to do is to restore free market capitalism by forcing polluters to internalize the cost, to pay the true cost of bringing their product to market.”
    – on public health:
    “Everything we did was wrong. We had the worst protocols in the world. We had the highest death count of any nation on earth. So, we should take whatever we did and say, let’s never do that again…” – #RFKjr
    – on 2A:
    “I respect the Second Amendment. I am not going to take people’s guns away.”
    One of his key policies is to ensure every American can purchase a home at 3%.

    • As for, “I respect the Second Amendment. I am not going to take people’s guns away.” I don’t believe him. Yes, he made that statement, not to take guns away but instituting an “assault weapons” ban is not taking away guns’ it is preventing us from acquiring the same guns the government will certainty use to enforce their gun laws.