The Real John F Kennedy Jr

David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

While Republican affairs can certainly get rough and unseemly at times, it’s usually the Democratic Party we can turn to for lessons in cold, unsentimental power politics. Consider, for instance, the reception accorded by the party establishment and like-minded reporters to an unexpected entrant into the 2024 presidential race, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a man who rates, one might have supposed, the respect due a worthy contender and honest dissenter.

After declaring his candidacy last month, RFK Jr. immediately showed at 14 percent in polls. Mild alarm followed, among supporters of President Biden, when two weeks later the next round of polling gave Kennedy an average of 20 percent. You could tell this was a bit of a shock because, almost instantly, the Washington Post dismissed it as nothing, in a hurried item headlined “Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Threat to Biden Is Inflated. Here’s Why.”

As surely as any Kennedy could once expect to be fawned over by Post reporters, this Kennedy — especially if he starts drawing crowds and votes — is never to be spared condescension and rebuke. The “why,” in case you haven’t heard, is that RFK Jr. has in recent years been airing “controversial,” “dangerous” views, and this makes him, says the Post, a “fringe figure” you needn’t take seriously.

Among his many provocations: Kennedy claims that pandemic lockdowns were calamitous for working people and for children; that citizens should choose for themselves whether to receive vaccines; that corporate influences on government are pervasive and corrupting; and that censorship contrived by the state is intolerable. Worse even than these outrages, during the pandemic this man called into question the conduct and veracity of Anthony Fauci. And this offense — challenging Doctor Fauci! — is still regarded as the most shameful assault on science since the persecution of Galileo.

It doesn’t matter that, point for point, RFK Jr. makes a strong case and most everyone knows it. His problem is, the prohibition on saying such things has not been lifted. A well-established, scientifically tested, and empirically proven phenomenon known as liberal groupthink has set in, preempting even the most obvious conclusions. So, even if Kennedy’s presidential bid is off to an impressive start, in the Post’s analysis he is still relegated to the same category as “fringe figure Lyndon LaRouche,” who — trivia time for Post readers — “in 1996 managed to pull double digits in some primary states.”

The New York Times, in its version of the LaRouche treatment, likewise left the impression of a candidate’s announcement speech strangely and single-mindedly focused on “shaking Americans’ faith in science,” no matter that the candidate himself had said nothing at all along those lines, and no matter that in all of his scientific arguments he cites scientific methods and scientific evidence. Here again the day’s news was predetermined: casting the accomplished son and namesake of Senator Robert F. Kennedy as just another sorry entry in “a history of fringe presidential aspirants from both parties who run to bring attention to a cause, or to themselves.” Having thus alerted readers that the new candidate with the familiar name is basically a head case, the Post and Times can now put that name back on the blacklist, denying Kennedy coverage unless he troubles them further by rising in polls or by making crazy demands for primary debates.

As if this didn’t paint a sad enough picture, we’re reminded in practically every story about RFK Jr. that his extended family has been left in anguish over the campaign and the “embarrassment” it has caused. Longtime Washington columnist Albert Hunt, writing in the tone of a concerned family friend relaying word straight from Hyannisport, explains: “The opposition [to RFK Jr.] of most of the Kennedy clan is unprecedented, as a core tenet — dating back to the patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy — is unquestioned family loyalty.” “While embarrassing,” Hunt assures us, “this isn’t going to tarnish the Kennedy legacy.” And although RFK Jr.’s campaign is “personally painful” to relatives, it’s comforting to know “he has no chance to be the Democratic nominee.”

But let’s think. Perhaps there is a way of healing this rift. I seem to recall another core tenet passed down by the patriarch — that winning is everything. We can easily imagine the clan all together again on stage in the event RFK Jr. has beaten the odds and claimed the family’s first presidential primary victories in 44 years, a feat entirely within his reach — and, of course, the occasion for all this intraparty anxiety.

That folks around the DNC know he has a chance, in New Hampshire and beyond, can be surmised from reports of chatter about a backup plan involving California Governor Gavin Newsom — or even, if it comes to that, Vice President Kamala Harris. As the establishment thinking goes, Newsom would be a more plausible and reputable alternative, once Kennedy has rendered Biden too weak to go on. In other words: Let RFK Jr. take all the risks, and do all the work, of removing from the scene a president due for retirement, so that Newsom can step in and triumphantly fill the void. Use Bobby to get rid of Joe, then use Gavin to get rid of Bobby.

Overlooked, in this talk of making RFK Jr. the stalking horse for a lightweight governor, are qualities apparent in the candidate himself. Where the enforcers of acceptable opinion see “danger” and “disinformation,” voters more likely will notice traits to admire. The heavy-handed treatment of Kennedy only draws attention to his independence and resiliency. The man has a toughness to him, and clearly labors under no illusion that he must please or impress the people who are trying to marginalize him.

The self-image of our major media as adjudicator of candidate merit, deciding who gets to move on and who doesn’t, is somehow unshakable, and the pundit class can be even more obtuse. When Al Hunt lays it down as written in the stars that Kennedy “has no chance to be the Democratic nominee,” who doesn’t hear the chorus of Republicans in 2015 and 2016 telling anyone who would listen that “Donald Trump will never be president”? It’s true that another visit by a black swan to American politics is hard to conceive, and that an RFK Jr. nomination would certainly present this creature again in full plumage. As always with our analysts and augurs of elections, it’s just their tone of wholly unwarranted self-assurance that grates.

In any event, drawn to the forbidden, and curious about the conspiracies, I spent a few days in 2020 with Kennedy’s book The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health, a work that sold more than a million copies after publication that year even as it was found unfit for reviewing attention in the Times and elsewhere. And here is my layman’s diagnosis of this dangerous character: The source of Kennedy’s troubles is a chronic inability to tolerate the intellectual dishonesty he finds in his antagonists. He would fully recover, returning to the life of liberal accolades he once knew, if only he didn’t have so much integrity.

I have seldom read any book while feeling such respect for its author. There’s nothing flaky or offbeat about it. With courtroom standards of proof — everything cited and sourced to government databases and to peer-reviewed publications — Kennedy details egregious wrongdoing and raises entirely legitimate questions about the workings of the federal health bureaucracy during Covid and long before. He examines pharma and its dealings with government regulators; the compromising effects of some $10 billion a year in pharmaceutical advertising money on print and broadcast journalism, and of federal money on private medical research; and all the deceptions, exaggerations, and abuses of power by which the pandemic was exploited, with little regard for the interests, safety, concerns, or consent of the public.

What is really so “controversial” about any of this? An industry with annual revenue in the hundreds of billions of dollars is protected in law from liability for any ill effects of products that are mandated in law for public use. We’re supposed to be aghast at the suggestion that sound medical judgment might at times have given way to motives of self-enrichment at the expense of public health? Many television, print, and online outlets subsist on pharma-advertising revenue. That cannot possibly influence coverage? And in a country so heavily reliant on costly pharmaceuticals, why do we find so much persistent sickness, more than in European nations and even among children? I leave it all for others to argue, except to observe that such questions are plainly valid and necessary. The most scandalous feature of all here is the absolute prohibition on them. A less timid, herdlike generation of journalists would realize that books like Kennedy’s are exactly the kind of work that they themselves ought to be doing.