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2024 Election

Kennedy family set to step up its efforts to help Biden's campaign

The Kennedys' recent visit to the White House, and big family photo with the president, previewed the coming push.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in New York City last year.John Lamparski / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — For President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s independent candidacy looms as a potential political spoiler. But for members of the extended Kennedy family, the possibility that one of their own could tip the race for presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump poses a different risk — spoiling a legacy.

Some members of the extended Kennedy clan already have issued statements making it clear they stand with Biden this fall. But a gathering of dozens of Kennedys at the White House last weekend marked the beginning of a more active effort by the family to boost Biden’s re-election effort and push back against one of their own.

“There was a point of having everybody there,” a senior member of the Kennedy family said of their gathering at the White House on St. Patrick's Day. The visit, which was captured in a photograph with Biden on the steps of the Rose Garden, included three generations and four branches of RFK Jr.'s relatives.

When it comes to potential future interactions with Biden, the senior member of the Kennedy family added: “I think timing is everything.”

People close to the family say the Kennedys' stepped-up engagement in the 2024 race could take on different forms. Some family members who have been involved in politics themselves expect to spend time on the campaign trail this fall, especially in states where RFK Jr. qualifies for the ballot. For others, it could be stepping up media appearances or lending their revered family name to initiatives that aim to counter their relative’s campaign, potentially even legal challenges to his ballot access campaign.

It’s an effort the White House and the Biden campaign are welcoming, though not directing themselves. Multiple sources familiar with the family’s advocacy say the Biden team is letting the Kennedys take the lead on helping the president's candidacy and then working to support them as needed.

Kerry Kennedy, the seventh of Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s 11 children and president of the family foundation, has played a lead role in organizing the family’s political work against the RFK Jr., 70.

The Democratic National Committee just announced this week that Mary Beth Cahill, a former chief of staff to Sen. Edward Kennedy, will serve as senior adviser in the party’s efforts to counter third-party candidates. The DNC was all too happy to point to the Rose Garden photograph as demonstrating where most of the Kennedys stand.

“A picture is worth a thousand words," DNC spokesperson Matt Corridoni said. "It’s telling that the people who know RFK Jr. best are standing with Joe Biden in this election."

Members of the Kennedy family declined to comment on their potential campaign role, citing the sensitivity of the dynamic. Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for the White House, said in a statement: “President Biden enjoys celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and the Kennedy and Biden families have been good friends for many years. President Biden is also proud that members of the Kennedy family are serving their country in this administration.”

Some members of the Kennedy family will be more comfortable directly criticizing one of their own than others, especially those closest in age and relationship to RFK Jr., who may simply express support for Biden, according to people close to the family.

Stephen Kennedy Smith, for instance, was direct in a social media post along with the Rose Garden photo, warning that his cousin could hand the election to Trump and put “our democratic process at risk.”

“This is a mistake we can not afford as a country,” he wrote. “Our family has always worked together, so it’s difficult to speak out against a family member. But when RFK Jr decided to run he didn’t call me to ask for help because he knew I would oppose his candidacy due to his misguided stands on issues, his poor judgement, and tenuous relationship with the truth.”

A person familiar with the dynamics noted that with such a large family, coordination of message, if not mission, will never be fully aligned. But, this person said, the “overwhelming majority” of the descendants of Joseph and Rose Kennedy — many of whom simply call one another “cousin” even if the term does not exactly apply — will step up to support Biden’s campaign.

Another person familiar with the dynamic said some members of the Kennedy family are “furious” with RFK Jr., adding that “they are legitimately concerned about what he’s doing to their last name.”

It is not the first time that RFK Jr. has received public criticism from siblings, cousins and other family members over his views and political activities. Their pushback against his presidential bid builds on a similar public familial disagreement that began organically during the Covid-19 pandemic, when relatives were startled at how he emerged as a chief disseminator of misinformation about the deadly coronavirus. 

In an interview with NBC News’ Vaughn Hillyard last month, Kennedy downplayed the family rift.

“I disagree with my family on a lot of stuff. I have family members who strongly support me. There is 105 Kennedys,” he said. “I think there’s very few Americans whose families agree with them on every issue. And our family was raised in a milieu where we debated. We came home every night at dinner and we were encouraged to debate each other and to debate each other on important issues and still love each other. I love my family. They’re entitled to their opinion.”

The potential power of the Kennedy family’s advocacy was seen in the Rose Garden photo, which was first posted by Kerry Kennedy and then shared by others in the family. Biden allies noted the significant reach of the photo in helping amplify a key message for his campaign in a potential close election: that despite RFK Jr.’s brand name, he’s an outlier in the family.

Even as campaign politics was inescapable, people familiar with Sunday’s Kennedy family visit to the White House said that for everyone involved, including Biden, it was more personal.

In addition to welcoming them at a public reception celebrating St. Patrick’s Day — “from one big Irish Catholic family to another, it’s great to have the Kennedys here,” Biden said — he then led them on a private tour of the West Wing, including the Oval Office.

Biden showcased the bust of Robert F. Kennedy Sr. that sits near the Resolute Desk, where President John F. Kennedy’s young children famously played when they visited their father. And he talked about the significant influence not just of the elder RFK, who was the attorney general and a senator from New York, but of the entire family.

Biden was “incredibly generous, thoughtful and funny” during the visit, a person close to the Kennedy family said. For the younger generation present, it was their first time ever at the White House, a place that “has incredible historical significance” to the family, this person added.

“He showed everyone around, treated everyone with patience regardless of their age,” the person close to the Kennedy family said. “For the president of the United States to take time to acknowledge the influence of various members of the family is humbling.”

While the Kennedy family gathers regularly at the family compound in Hyannis Port in Massachusetts, they are rarely together in Washington, and visits to the White house have not been frequent in recent years.

“There were times when President Clinton would have us all there,” a family source said. But this trip had personal meaning in addition to the political message it sent, the source added. “To be all at the White House was unusual, and so it was really special. And it was also really special because Joe Biden likes our family."

Biden’s affinity for the Kennedy family runs deep.

JFK’s election in 1960 was a seismic event for his Irish Catholic family. Biden has called RFK Sr. one of his two political heroes, along with Martin Luther King Jr., whose assassinations in 1968 were formative in his own political activism. Biden served with Ted Kennedy for his entire 36 years in the Senate, calling him his “tutor” and his “guide” when he joined the chamber in 1973 and supporting him after he lost his first wife and infant daughter in a car accident shortly after his election. 

Even during his interview with special counsel Robert Hur, Biden as an aside said he hoped to create a “Biden Center” on the University of Delaware campus similar to the Kennedy Center in Washington.

A person close to Biden said the president would be reluctant to publicly attack one of Ethel Kennedy's children out his longtime fondness for the family.

Biden’s affection for Ethel Kennedy in particular is long-standing. He attended her 90th birthday celebration in 2018, and he has spoken by phone with her as president and sent her gifts. 

But the senior member of the family cautioned that Ethel Kennedy is not engaged in current politics, including the activities of her son Bobby, saying, “That’s not a discussion we have with her."