He’s no Jack Kennedy
By Michelle Cottle
Let’s just go ahead and say the quiet part out loud: Robert Kennedy Jr. — the nephew of John F. Kennedy, the son of Robert F. Kennedy — is a bit of a crank.
This is not breaking news. The 69-year-old scion of America’s most famous political family has been peddling anti-vaccine hysteria since long before COVID-19 made it trendy, along with a spicy stew of other conspiracy theories. Notable offerings: that the 2004 presidential election was stolen by Republicans, psychopharmaceuticals are responsible for mass shootings and the CIA had a hand in the assassination of his uncle.
But now Kennedy is looking to take his screwball act prime time, challenging President Joe Biden for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination. The troubling part is that this guy has a non-negligible degree of support.
Multiple polls from recent months show backing for Kennedy hovering around 20% among Democratic-inclined voters — not enough to pose an existential threat to Biden, but sufficient to give some in the party the jitters. The last thing Democrats want is some conspiracy-mongering fringe dweller highlighting the vulnerability of the party’s reelection-seeking incumbent. And the last thing the American public needs in this twitchy political moment is another high-profile circus act.
It’s no mystery what’s going on. The only reason anyone cares what Kennedy thinks or says is because of his political pedigree. The Kennedy name ain’t what it used to be, but it still speaks to plenty of voters. (Sooo much Camelot nostalgia lingering out there.) In a recent CNN poll, 64% of Democratic voters and leaners said they would support or at least consider supporting Kennedy’s White House run, with 20% of those who would consider it citing his political lineage as the top reason.
This is about more than one overromanticized family. The American electorate has a long-running, if tortured, romance with political dynasties in general. We love to grumble about them. Another Bush running for office? Another Clinton? Come on. But we also love to embrace them, up and down the political ladder. Just ask the Roosevelts or the Udalls or the Sununus or the scores of other clans for whom politics has become the family business.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this inclination. In many ways, voters going with the devil they think they know makes perfect sense — but only if they avoid letting a candidate’s familiar name become a lazy substitute for a real measure of the person.
Many Americans find the whole concept of political dynasties distasteful. Legacy politicians can carry a whiff of inherited power and entitlement that seems downright undemocratic. Way back in 2013, when the political world was waiting for Jeb Bush to become the third member of his family to run for president, his doting mother, Barbara, shared her reservations: “I think it’s a great country, there are a lot of great families, and it’s not just four families or whatever,” she told the “Today” show. “There are other people out there that are very qualified, and we’ve had enough Bushes.”
This maternal wisdom proved painfully on point for poor Jeb. And, several years on, the Republican Party has gone all in on trashing “professional politicians” — or pretty much anyone with a clue about or an interest in how government works. The more ignorant and unqualified you are, the more the base loves you. (See: Marjorie Taylor Greene.)
Still, no one is entitled to any elective office by virtue of their birth. That said, there is a case to make in appreciation of candidates who hail from families that take public service seriously and who are familiar with the weird world of politics. Exhibit A is Nancy Pelosi, the most formidable and effective House speaker in more than 60 years, who learned much about her craft growing up in a local Democratic dynasty in Baltimore.
Plenty of Americans follow their families into a particular field, be it the military, law enforcement, teaching, acting or journalism. So if George P. Bush wants to run for this or that office in his home state of Texas, more power to him. And if voters choose to smack him down, as they did in the Republican primary for state attorney general last year, good on them. (Although sticking with Ken Paxton instead? Really?)
But there is a dark side to all of this. Certain dynastic players can begin to feel — and behave — as though they are entitled to elected office, treating the honor as if it is not something to be earned so much as handed down like a family heirloom or a dry-cleaning business. That way inevitably leads to trouble.
Just as problematic, and far more common, is when voters treat a well-known political name as a substitute for seriously vetting a candidate’s fitness for office. As one poll respondent mused to CNN about the colorful Kennedy: “I liked his dad (RFK) and his uncle (JFK) a lot. I would hope he has a similar mindset.” Woo, boy. Cross your fingers that this voter does some due diligence before casting a ballot.
Being born into a political family doesn’t magically make you qualified for office. As scholar Stephen Hess, who literally wrote the book on America’s political dynasties, has pointed out, the offspring of these high-powered clans all too frequently turn out to be extremely ... problematic. At the risk of sounding harsh, for every Beau Biden, there is a Hunter.
Seriously, if you think Kennedy’s presidential aspirations are troubling — and you should — best start trying to wrap your mind around what a Trump dynasty could look like. Gov. Ivanka? Sen. Jared? President Don Jr.? Mock if you must. But spend a minute on the campaign trail with Don Jr. and it’s clear he has developed a taste for it. And voters in the Republican base love him.
As chilling as this thought may be, it points to the democratic twist that America has put on political royalty. Our dynasties are not fixed. As Hess has noted, they are forever shifting and expanding. Influential families fall out of favor even as new ones rise up. And anyone can aspire to start their own power clan. Which makes it all the more important for voters to pay attention and refuse to give an easy pass to any candidate, no matter how storied his or her family tree.