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RFK Jr. focuses on family history and skirts anti-vaccine rhetoric in bid against Biden

Robert F. Kenndy Jr. said he has "skeletons" in his closet but portrayed himself as a crusader for working-class Americans in announcing a challenge to President Joe Biden in 2024.
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BOSTON — Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a scion of one of America’s most prominent political families and arguably the country’s leading anti-vaccine activist, launched his presidential bid Tuesday, mounting a Democratic challenge against President Joe Biden.

Speaking from a historic hotel in the city that launched the political careers of his father and two of his uncles, Kennedy leaned heavily on references to his relatives’ political and policy decision-making during the 1960s. But he made only veiled references to the anti-vaccine activism that significantly raised his profile during the Covid pandemic and drew widespread praise from right-wing activists and influencers. He did acknowledge that many of his living family members — several of whom have called his vaccine rhetoric "dangerous" — “disagree with what I’m doing."

Instead, Kennedy talked up his history of environmental activism and portrayed himself as a crusader for working-class Americans against corporations that seek to fuse their power with the government’s. He also called for the U.S. to more thoroughly examine its role and objective in the war in Ukraine.

“I am not an ideal presidential candidate for normal times,” Kennedy said, alluding to controversial causes he has championed. “I am not one of these people who’ve spent their life saying, ‘I’ve got to be really careful because one day I’m going to be in the White House.’

“I’ve got so many skeletons in my closet that if they could vote, I could be king of the world,” he added. “In normal circumstances, I would not do this. But these are not normal circumstances. I’m watching my country being stolen. I don’t want the Democratic Party to be the party of fear and pharma and … censorship.”

Kennedy is the second Democrat to enter the race against Biden, even though the controversial positions he alluded to have put him out of step with most voters in the party he seeks to represent.

With that in mind, Kennedy sidestepped discussing some of his positions head-on. Although he devoted an extended segment to what he called the “chronic disease epidemic” and autism, he did not explicitly tie autism to vaccination — a widely discredited theory he has spread in the past.

Still, Kennedy was unabashed about what the major tenets of his administration would be: end “censorship” on social media, heal divisions in the country and “significantly drop the level of chronic disease in our children.” He said that should he fail to achieve the latter, he would not seek re-election.

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 19: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife Actress Cheryl Hines wave to supporters on stage after announcing his candidacy for President on April 19, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts. An outspoken anti-vaccine activist, RFK Jr. joins self-help author Marianne Williamson in the Democratic presidential field of challengers for 2024. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Cheryl Hines, wave to supporters Wednesday in Boston after Kennedy announced his candidacy for president.Scott Eisen / Getty Images file

A significant part of his nearly two-hour speech to a packed ballroom at the Boston Park Plaza hotel was dedicated to connecting him with President John F. Kennedy, his uncle, and his father, Robert F. Kennedy Sr., who was murdered the night he won the California Democratic presidential primary in 1968. He told lengthy stories about his family’s early roots in the U.S. and rise to power, name-checked various family members and their causes and relitigated some of his family’s famed old political battles, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the 1968 Democratic presidential primaries. 

At one point, Kennedy said his run for the White House was not unlike his father’s challenge against President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968.

“He was running against a president of his own party,” Kennedy said. “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.”

Since he announced his presidential bid this month, Kennedy has leaned into his family ties, even posting a tweet in which he wears an old-school “Kennedy for President” T-shirt. But his family, which counts multiple members of Biden’s administration among it, is steering clear of his bid. A dozen Kennedy family members either declined to speak or did not respond to requests for comment about his candidacy.

In a statement shared online, Kennedy’s sister Kerry Kennedy said: “I love my brother Bobby, but I do not share or endorse his opinions on many issues, including the COVID pandemic, vaccinations, and the role of social media platforms in policing false information.

“It is also important to note that Bobby’s views are not reflected in or influence the mission or work of our organization,” she added, referring to the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights nonprofit group.

In his speech Wednesday, Kennedy shouted out his immediate family members who were on hand, including his wife, the actor Cheryl Hines, who was one of the introductory speakers. The most prominent member of the family who was present outside of his immediate relatives was Anthony Shriver, the founder of Best Buddies International.

Kennedy did touch on the lack of support from his siblings and extended family.

“My whole family, including myself, have long personal relationships with President Biden,” Kennedy said. “Many of my family members work in the administration. Many of them also just plain disagree with me on the issues, like censorship or public health, and they are entitled to their opinions, and I respect their opinions.”

Introduced Wednesday by former Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who described him as the “Paul Revere of our times,” Kennedy has appeared with right-wing luminaries such as Roger Stone, a longtime informal adviser to former President Donald Trump, and Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and he has met with Trump himself, who, like Kennedy, has blamed childhood vaccines for autism. As The New York Times first spotted, Steve Bannon, a close ally of Trump's, said on his streaming program that only Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would outperform Kennedy in a Republican primary. “People love this guy,” he said. (Kennedy took to Twitter to deny reports that Bannon encouraged his run.)

Kennedy did criticize Trump, saying: “I blame President Trump for the lockdown. … The worst thing he did for our country, for our civil rights, was the lockdown.” He later accused social media companies of conspiring “with President Trump’s White House to censor people like me.”

More audience members cheered for Kennedy’s decrying the media than did for his broadsides against Trump — noteworthy for an event billed as his entrance into the Democratic race. When a fire alarm went off near the end of his remarks, temporarily disrupting his speech, an audience member shouted “CIA!”

While Kennedy sought to gear his rhetoric more toward a mainstream audience Wednesday, his activism has drawn stiff rebukes in the past. In January 2022, he spoke at a Washington, D.C., rally aimed at decrying coronavirus vaccination mandates when he suggested that Jews in Nazi Germany had more freedom than Americans under Covid vaccination policies. (Kennedy later apologized after critics and members of his own family, including his wife in a now-deleted tweet, criticized him for the remarks.)

Social media sites suspended his organization, Children’s Health Defense, last year for repeatedly violating anti-misinformation rules in posting about the pandemic. As he campaigned against the Covid vaccines, Kennedy released a book in 2021 titled “The Real Anthony Fauci,” in which he promoted unproven treatments such as the anti-parasite drug ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, chiefly used to fight malaria.

Attendees at his launch felt he was being unfairly painted as an “anti-vaxxer” but said they wanted to hear more about his policies on other matters.

“They’re putting him out there as this big anti-vaxxer, and it’s amazing to me,” said Katie, a Boston-area voter who attended the launch and declined to share her last name. “Because this is a lawyer who cleaned up the Hudson River. Like, this is a real person who has done real things. And the way they’re just trying to stop him before he even starts is incredibly dismaying.”

Willard Hall, a sculptor from New Hampshire who said he backed Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein in recent presidential elections, said Kennedy’s environmentalism drove him to his candidacy.

“These issues have become more complex over the years,” he said. “It really starts with the food system."

Hall bristled at Kennedy’s being described as an anti-vaxxer, saying the term was comparable to a laundry list of pejoratives aimed at Black Americans, Jews, Irish Americans and Hispanic Americans.

“It’s a pejorative term, and it’s designed to slander people who — the overwhelming majority of these people have trusted their doctors or followed their advice and have themselves been injured, or they have a family member or a loved one that’s been injured by a vaccine.”

As for Kennedy’s family’s mostly avoiding his campaign, Hall said he did not think it mattered “one whit.”

Nwakaego Nwaifejokwu, a New York City public school teacher who lost her job for refusing to adhere to the city’s vaccination mandate and later joined with other teachers to sue the city, said she was excited about the potential for Kennedy to win. (Nwaifejokwu said Children’s Health Defense, Kennedy’s organization, helped pay for her lawsuit.)

“I feel like we’re going to have to get him to talk beyond the medical freedom issue,” she said. “And that’s important, but Americans definitely want to hear about the other issues that impact them. I think if we did get them to understand that he is with them on those other issues, then maybe they will be more likely to hear him.”