Boston Sunday Globe

For RFK Jr., echoes of familiar family playbook

Kennedys often bucked the party line as candidates

- By David M. Shribman

His uncle did it, and became president. His father did it, and helped force a sitting president out of office while almost winning the Democratic presidenti­al nomination. Then his younger uncle did it, and nearly toppled a sitting president of his own party.

That’s not all. His brother did it, overcoming a strong Democratic field to capture a House seat. His sister did it, winning a tough lieutenant governor race and positionin­g herself to win a gubernator­ial nomination. His nephew did it, challengin­g a Democratic veteran for a Senate seat but falling short. And his grandfathe­r thought about it, and gave Franklin Delano Roosevelt sufficient reason to appoint him World War II-era ambassador to Great Britain and get him out of the country.

So who is to say that independen­t presidenti­al candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — onetime environmen­tal crusader turned antivaccin­e activist, bearing a name that time has not tar

nished — should not have his own seize-the-moment opportunit­y in the bright sunshine of American politics?

Plenty of people, it turns out. They are troubled, baffled, irate, saddened by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s against-all-convention­al-reason challenge, particular­ly as the anniversar­y of the 1963 assassinat­ion of John F. Kennedy arrived last week, bringing with it 60-year commemorat­ions and reminiscen­ces.

And yet despite being greeted by widespread horror and pained dismissal, Robert Kennedy Jr.’s quest has, in its outlandish improbabil­ity, at least faint trace elements of the family’s political playbook — as the generation­s of boundary-busting candidates bearing the Kennedy name demonstrat­es.

More iconoclast than icon, RFK Jr. — as he is known, shrewdly appropriat­ing and seeking to exploit three letters that have a peculiar ability to make some hearts race and eyes moisten — does, however, have an unusual, and unusually ardent, set of detractors.

The critics include brothers and sisters who grew up with him, shared the searing and enduring pain of their father’s assassinat­ion in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen, and now have disavowed his campaign in the strongest possible language, with four of his siblings releasing a statement saying, “We denounce his candidacy and believe it to be perilous for our country.”

His relatives are joined by Democratic operatives who rushed to his father’s side to oppose Lyndon B. Johnson, supported a dozen Kennedy family causes and campaigns, but steer clear of this one.

His deprecator­s include a panoply of progressiv­e political figures who fear that his campaign will throw next year’s presidenti­al election to Donald Trump because, as former House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, himself a two-time presidenti­al candidate, put it in an interview, “though he may see this as another impossible Kennedy campaign like the others, it may turn out that this impossible campaign could make a tyrant-president possible.”

The denigrator­s include dozens of family “retainers”— a word seldom applied to any other clan —who consider him an apostate at best, a menace at worst, and as a stain on the family heritage they helped build. But few are bold enough to say so. Indeed, in five months of unavailing effort, it was difficult to find more than a few members of the intimate inner Kennedy circle — aides, colleagues, authors — who would even speak on the record about Robert F. Kennedy’s son.

One of the few is Peter Edelman, who was involved in Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s decision to undertake his 1968 presidenti­al campaign. “Bobby Jr. is an individual person, not part of a trend,” he said. “He’s got a name he’s using to get attention. If he was Joe Jones, this would be nothing. That’s all there is to it.”

In that assessment is a 60-years-later reprise of the only memorable line from the 1962 Massachuse­tts senatorial debate between Attorney General Edward McCormack, himself part of a prominent political family, and the 30-yearold Edward M. Kennedy, the brother of the 35th president. “If your name was simply Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy,” McCormack said, “your candidacy would be a joke.”

Repeated requests since June for an interview with RFK Jr. were unavailing.

RFK Jr. may strike many Democrats and Kennedy-ites as wrong about vaccines; or insensitiv­e and mistaken about his comparison of antivaxxer­s to Anne Frank’s plight; or horribly misguided in his view that the CIA played a role in the deaths of his uncle and father; or cruel in his comments about his 95-year-old mother, Ethel Kennedy (“her love didn’t always feel unconditio­nal,” he said in his memoir). But there may be an unpalatabl­e morsel of truth in his view that, in its own way, his campaign is consistent with his family’s political pattern.

For four generation­s, beginning with his grandfathe­r, Joseph P. Kennedy, his relatives have sought to capture prizes that the purveyors of convention­al wisdom considered beyond their reach, sometimes beyond their ability. RFK Jr. is the fourth member of his family for whom the phrase “Kennedy for President” has been applied. He is the third Kennedy to challenge a sitting president of his own party. His political lineage extends back to his great-greatgrand­father, P.J. Kennedy, who won a seat in the Massachuse­tts House in 1884.

It is heady company — heady enough, his critics and scholars argue, to cloud human judgment.

“There is no resemblanc­e in what he is doing to what his father or uncle or anyone in his family did,” said Sarah Purcell, a historian at Grinnell College in Iowa. “No competent historian would or could make that comparison.”

But instead of John Quincy Adams and George W. Bush, who won the White House after their fathers’ presidenci­es, Kennedy has become more the modern-day equivalent of William Franklin, who became a Tory leader at the time his father, Ben, was a Founding Father; or Randolph Churchill, who sought and ignominiou­sly failed to capture anything like the fire that ignited his famous father’s rhetoric and defiant, wartime leadership.

“I’ve been involved with the Kennedy family for most of my life, and everybody — in the family, close friends — is appalled,” said Joe Trippi, who as a college senior dropped out of San Jose University to work in Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s 1980 primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter and is an unusual voice willing to assail, on the record rather than in private whispers, the latest family presidenti­al candidacy. “The Kennedy name is the foundation of the modern Democratic Party . ... There is a hopelessne­ss to trying to explain this to him.”

And yet hopelessne­ss is part of the fuel — perhaps the rationale — for this latest Robert Kennedy campaign, though this month’s New York Times/ Siena College Poll showed that he has the support of 24 percent of the electorate in the six battlegrou­nd states that likely will swing the election. In his April campaign announceme­nt identifyin­g himself with his father’s seemingly quixotic 1968 effort, he said that it was “that hopelessne­ss in his campaign that gave him freedom to tell the truth to the American people.”

No pollster, scholar, mainstream strategist, or veteran activist sees a plausible path from Kennedy’s October move from a Democratic candidacy to a third-party effort and then to the White House. But when RFK Jr., whose narrow neckties are evocative of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and the era of the 1960s, does his morning grooming he clearly sees a mirror image of his overreachi­ng forebears.

In his April campaign announceme­nt — made at Boston’s Park Plaza, where Kennedys traditiona­lly have held events — he spoke of how, from their immigrant start in America at the middle of the 19th century, members of his family “took to politics like man to food.” He referenced, as he does on the stump, “my uncle,” the 35th president, and drew a comparison between his 2024 campaign and the 1968 presidenti­al campaign of his father, which ended when RFK was killed in California, his namesake, then just 14, a mouth-agape witness.

“My father at the time in many ways was in the same position I’m in today,” the son said. “He was running against a president of his own party, he was running against a war, he was running at a time of unpreceden­ted polarizati­on in our country, and he had no chance of winning. My father when he declared had not a single molecule in him that believed he could win the Democratic nomination.”

RFK Jr. clearly has channeled his grandfathe­r, Joseph P. Kennedy, who once said, “For the Kennedys, it’s the castle or the outhouse.” But the historical comparison­s that he is employing in his drive to the “castle” are more easily uttered on the campaign stump than defended in the faculty lounge by scholars of American politics.

“It is a stretch because none of the other Kennedys went into a campaign with the kind of baggage this new RFK brings,” said Robert Dallek, the retired Boston University historian and author of the 2003 “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963.” “The other Kennedys were mainstream figures, but he is way out of the mainstream. This Kennedy seems to go off the edge of respectabi­lity.”

There is fertile material in the family’s past to provide RFK Jr. with the hypothesis — in his case, the conviction — that the impractica­bility of his relations’ political campaigns would be matched with irresistib­le success in his.

Though John F. Kennedy may have felt that he was ideally positioned for a seat in Congress in 1946, he had none of the usual qualificat­ions — prior office, even residence in the district where he would undertake his campaign. He was, as Herbert S. Parmet put it in “Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy,” published in 1970, “a bright and wealthy young veteran, one of remarkable distinctio­n for his age, already associated with selflessne­ss, patriotism and public service” — a particular­ly attractive profile in a period when veterans were being feted and featured.

JFK mulled other options. Maybe a run for lieutenant governor. Or a longshot bid for the 11th District House seat being vacated by James M. Curley, who, perhaps with more than a nudge from Joseph P. Kennedy, had returned to City Hall as mayor.

Once JFK chose to run for the House, he faced two other obstacles — each ordinarily insuperabl­e for political mortals not named Kennedy.

One was his own lack of bona fides. He consulted with a local politico, Dan O’Brien, and jotted down the liabilitie­s O’Brien had named. “Says I’ll be murdered — No personal experience — A personal district — Says I don’t know 300 people personally.” Kennedy countered with his own attributes, including “In politics you don’t have friends — you have confederat­es” and “The best politician is the man who does not think too much of the political consequenc­es of his every act” — two notions that clearly are propelling his nephew.

JFK was little interested in life in the House, its only value to him being a launching pad to higher office. He thought about taking on Senator Leverett Saltonstal­l in 1948 or maybe even running for governor. Though Governor Paul Dever was toying with the notion to enter the 1952 Senate race to fight for the seat held by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the young congressma­n pressed ahead and ran. The eventual race was a classic Massachuse­tts contest of the surging Irish against the staid Yankee. It was, to be sure, a gamble — every indication suggested that 1952 would be a good Republican year, with Dwight D. Eisenhower at the top of the ticket, and that’s what it turned out to be, with GOP gains in the Senate (two seats) and the House (22). Even so, Kennedy prevailed.

The potential leap to the vice presidency in 1956 was an even more audacious move. Adlai Stevenson had left the selection of his running mate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (“The choice is yours,” he told the delegates. “The profit will be the nation’s.”) Immediatel­y the attention turned to Senators Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee, and, the darkest of dark horses, John F. Kennedy of Massachuse­tts, still in his first term. His father urged him to demur. Governor Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticu­t, who would be an early supporter of Kennedy for the 1960 Democratic nomination, said that “everybody tried to block Kennedy” in Chicago, explaining, “He wasn’t a great senator” and his colleagues in the chamber looked on him as a “whippersna­pper.”

The whippersna­pper didn’t prevail, but he profited from the near-miss, which gave him national exposure and showed that he possessed unexpected potential strength in the South. The effort had the additional advantage of keeping him off a ticket that was destined to lose. The smart move, it turned out, was to postpone for an additional four years the first test, after Al Smith’s 1924 campaign defeat, of a Catholic on a national ticket.

As the 1960 race approached, Kennedy repeatedly tried to win the support of the liberals who, along with the Southern bourbons, were the principal power in the selection of the party’s nominee. But it was hard going; once again Kennedy was regarded as an arriviste. He won anyway.

The pattern returned for Robert F. Kennedy Sr. in 1968, with the Vietnam War raging, Lyndon Johnson weakening, and protests growing. There was pressure to run — from the JFK diaspora, from antiwar activists, from Ethel Kennedy herself — but he hesitated. In January 1968 he told a friend, “I think if I run, I will go a long way toward proving everything that everybody who doesn’t like me has said about me … that I’m just a selfish, ambitious little SOB who can’t wait to get his hands on the White House.” The journalist Joseph Alsop predicted, “He will destroy himself. He will destroy his party.”

But if RFK Jr. is a branch on a considerab­le family tree of people who defied ordinary convention­al thinking and took on very long odds, he may be the only one in that rambunctio­us roster who defied the express private wishes and public sentiments of his family.

Right now Democrats, who for more than a generation have sought to recapture the Kennedy mystique and in many cases sought to appropriat­e the Kennedy style, are apoplectic about the arrival of the newest Kennedy on the presidenti­al-campaign scene. Those feelings redoubled when Kennedy abandoned the primary fight against Joe Biden and undertook an Independen­t candidacy.

Their fear: Kennedy will siphon sufficient votes from Biden in key states to swing the election to Trump. No independen­t presidenti­al candidate has won an electoral vote since Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama did in 1968, but non-major party candidates still have had a significan­t effect, particular­ly in the year 2000, when Green Party candidate Ralph Nader won enough votes to very likely cost Al Gore the White House.

“There is zero point zero chance that RFK Jr. will be president, but he could have an enormous impact,” said Matt Bennett, executive vice president of Third Way, a center-left Democratic-oriented think tank. “I am not at all convinced he will hurt Trump. Anything that divides the anti-Trump coalition is bad.”

“People are reacting to his name, and as people have gotten to know him, his support has gone down,” said Greg Schneiders, a veteran Democratic pollster working to assure a two-person presidenti­al race. “Even if you don’t know what effect his candidacy will have, it’s playing with fire without any chance of winning.”

That’s clearly part of the worry of Rory Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy II, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend — his siblings.

“Bobby might share the same name as our father,” they said in a statement, “but he does not share the same values, vision or judgment.”

But, again, his campaign is a continuati­on, in its way, of a long family line.

His uncle Edward Kennedy, whose legacy is his productive years in the Senate rather than his failed presidenti­al campaign, believed that the brass ring of opportunit­y comes around rarely, and when it does, the daring take a chance.

“The Kennedys are classic line-cutters,” said Thomas Whalen, a Boston University social sciences professor. “From the very beginning they have gone by their own time tables, and they don’t start out running for the city council.” That is the cause both of the inspiratio­n they have sown — and the consternat­ion they have reaped, and are reaping again this autumn.

 ?? EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI/GETTY IMAGES ?? In October, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. dropped his bid for the Democratic presidenti­al nomination and declared his candidacy as an independen­t. Below, Kennedy, with cousin Kara and sister Courtney, rode in a car on the day of the funeral for their uncle, President John F. Kennedy, in November 1963.
EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI/GETTY IMAGES In October, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. dropped his bid for the Democratic presidenti­al nomination and declared his candidacy as an independen­t. Below, Kennedy, with cousin Kara and sister Courtney, rode in a car on the day of the funeral for their uncle, President John F. Kennedy, in November 1963.

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