Portrait | A Kennedy spanner in the US election works


Portrait | A Kennedy spanner in the US election works

Robert F Kennedy Jr won't make it to the White House but the two major candidates dare not ignore him, writes WILLEM KEMPEN.

EVEN if the US electorate consisted entirely of members of his own family, Robert Francis Kennedy junior (RFK Jr) still wouldn't make it to the White House in November. Not by a long shot.

In fact, two of his sisters are among the group of 15 prominent Kennedys who not only publicly endorsed Joe Biden in April but also made it clear they are strongly opposed to their brother's candidacy.

No prominent Kennedy endorsed him as a presidential candidate, while some of the best known have publicly criticised him or even described him as an embarrassment. They include Caroline Kennedy, Joe Kennedy III, Victoria Ann Kennedy, Patrick J Kennedy, Rory Kennedy and Jack Schlossberg, son of Caroline Kennedy.

One sister, Kerry Kennedy, helped arrange the family's public endorsement of Biden. Speaking at the event, she referred to the incumbent as “a champion for all the rights and freedoms that my father and uncles stood for" and warned that Donald Trump is an enemy of democracy and the US constitution. This is while there is a bust of RFK Sr in the Oval Office and Biden sees the father of his independent opponent as the inspiration for his own decision to become a public prosecutor and later a career politician.

The other sister, Rory Kennedy, told CNN in an interview in March she worries that her brother might spoil Biden's chances of beating Trump: “I feel strongly that this is the most important election of our lifetime and there’s so much at stake. And I do think it’s gonna come down to a handful of votes in a handful of states, and I do worry that Bobby taking some percentage of votes off Biden could shift the election and lead to Trump’s election.”

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The “father and uncles" to whom Kerry Kennedy refers are primarily:

Her father, Robert Francis “Bobby" Kennedy senior, whose name her brother shares and who served in JFK's cabinet;

Her uncle John Fitzgerald “Jack" Kennedy (JFK), the president who was assassinated in 1963;

Her uncle Edward Moore “Ted" Kennedy, the influential Democratic senator who might also have become president if not for the infamous Chappaquiddick incident of 1969.

(These three were the most famous of the nine Kennedy siblings; read  more about the rest here.)

It's ironic that RFK Jr enjoys so little support among his own family because the Kennedy name is virtually a guarantee of political success, even outside traditional Democratic circles. For example, his cousin John F Kennedy junior (“John-John"), the one remembered for his salute as a little boy at his slain presidential father's grave, is still an icon among right-wing Americans, some of whom even cling to the belief that he didn't really die in a plane crash in 1999 but will one day return to lead them to some promised land.

But it's also no surprise that the traditionally staunch Democratic Kennedys have turned their backs on RFK Jr. Although he was a Democrat in name until he decided last year to run for president as an independent, he has a long history of odd and even bizarre ideas and statements that are closer to those of Trump than to Biden.

After making a name for himself as an environmental rights campaigner — he was one of Time's “Heroes of the planet" in 2007 — he became convinced along the way that certain childhood vaccinations can cause autism. Rolling Stone published an article of his under the headline “The Autism Epidemic: Are Mercury-Tainted Vaccines to Blame?"

It rightly caused a storm because it contained no scientific evidence for this inflammatory and reckless claim, and Rolling Stone quickly retracted it.

Yet Kennedy persisted and later said in an interview with Lex Fridman: “There's no vaccine, you know, that's safe and effective." And that wasn't even his strangest statement in that conversation.

When he was diagnosed as having a neurological disorder that causes muscles in the larynx to contract and which affects his speech, he publicly wondered if his annual flu vaccine might be to blame.

On the Covid vaccinations, he said they're “the deadliest ever made".

He also got it into his head that Covid favours certain racial groups and that others are immune to it: “The people who are most immune are the Ashkenazi Jews and the Chinese." 

In 2021, he wrote a book, The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health. It's all one big conspiracy, he writes: Fauci (the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for 28 years until 2022) sabotaged the available treatments for Aids years ago; and Fauci, Bill Gates, Facebook and others suppressed information about the true treatment for Covid-19 so the vaccines would be the public's only option.

But when Kasie Hunt from CNN confronted him about these and other statements, he declared: “I'm not anti-vaccine."

Yet he still seems to believe that 5G internet is a way to monitor or even manipulate the public; that Wi-Fi causes cancer; and that the mass shootings in the US are caused by doctors who prescribe Prozac too readily.

He is less predictable on other matters of political policy. For example, he is in favour of a minimum wage and reforming the police but opposes stricter gun control and aid to Ukraine.

The New York Times recently reported that in court papers for his divorce in 2012, he attributed his earlier health problems to “a worm that got into my brain and ate a portion of it and then died”.

In the same documentation, he declared that he had suffered from “memory loss and mental fogginess so severe that a friend grew concerned I might have a brain tumour”.

It's hard to tell from RFK Jr's current behaviour to what extent he has recovered from all of this. It doesn't seem to bother his supporters in any event, because he's already qualified to be included on the ballots in Utah, Michigan, California and Hawaii, and is making good progress in Idaho, Nevada, Nebraska, Iowa, New Hampshire and North Carolina.

“We will have ballot access in every state by the end of July," he told reporters last week.

At the same time, many of his supporters are disappointed in his choice of the Silicon Valley lawyer Nicole Shanahan as his running mate. Shanahan was married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin until 2021 but is also wealthy in her own right. She donated $4 million towards an ad for the RFK Jr campaign that was aired during the Super Bowl in February. The ad caused many of his fellow Kennedys to accuse him of exploiting the family name.

Meanwhile, it's still not clear from the polls whether this Kennedy will end up taking more votes from Biden or from Trump in November's election. In 2020, the difference between Biden and Trump in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin was less than a single percentage point, making it hard to predict what his impact may be. To a lesser extent, the same applies to Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

The question is also how many voters think like 37-year-old Drew Dietle, a Kennedy supporter from Minnesota who told CNN: “I don’t think we’ve ever had two candidates like Trump and Biden who are more unpopular, and so I think the road is wide open for a third-party candidate to be successful this time around.”

A more likely outcome is that this “third-party candidate" will have more of an impact on which of the other two will be less successful. Nor can one help but wonder whether American politics is now at the point where the battle for the White House is about who is the “least unpopular". But even then, Robert Francis Kennedy Junior will still have to be content with a distant third place.

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