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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. makes his White House run official

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. waves with his family after delivering remarks at an event where he announced his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in Boston, on April 19, 2023.

By Trip Gabriel

More than half a century after his father sought the White House to end a calamitous war in Vietnam and to salve the country’s racial wounds, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced a presidential campaign earlier this week built on relitigating COVID-19 shutdowns and shaking Americans’ faith in science.

Kennedy, a California resident, traveled to Boston, once the citadel of his family’s power, to declare that he would challenge President Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination in a long-shot bid for the White House.

Appearing at the Park Plaza Hotel — a favorite fundraising venue of his uncle Sen. Ted Kennedy’s — he sought to wrap himself in the Kennedy political luster.

The event was saturated, in words and images, with reminiscences of Kennedy’s father as well as another uncle, President John F. Kennedy.

In a rambling speech lasting nearly two hours, Kennedy, 69, evoked his father’s 1968 campaign and death, and spoke in detail about his career as an environmental lawyer decades ago. He also aimed criticisms at the pharmaceutical industry, big social media companies that he accused of censorship, Biden’s commitment to the war in Ukraine and former President Donald Trump’s “lockdown” of the country early in the pandemic.

“This is what happens when you censor somebody for 18 years,” Kennedy said, a reference to his complaint that social media platforms and the mainstream media have not given him a fair hearing. “I got a lot to talk about. They shouldn’t have shut me up for that long because now I’m really going to let loose on them for the next 18 months. They’re going to hear a lot from me.”

Late in his speech, an alarm sounded, and an announcement asked people to evacuate. Nobody moved. “Nice try,” Kennedy said, and continued to speak.

Numerous attendees, who had come from Boston, neighboring New England states and Florida, recounted in interviews their skepticism about vaccines and the pharmaceutical industry.

While polls show that up to half of Democrats want someone besides Biden as their 2024 nominee, no party leader has stepped up with a challenge, and past opponents have rallied to the president’s side. Kennedy is the latest in a history of fringe presidential aspirants from both parties who run to bring attention to a cause or to themselves.

For Kennedy, that cause is vaccine skepticism, which he cloaked in terms of truth-seeking and free speech, a crusade that in the past led him to falsely link childhood vaccines to autism. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he sought to undermine public trust in vaccines, comparing government efforts to impose mandates in some places to “Hitler’s Germany.” Both Facebook and Instagram took down accounts of a group he runs for spreading medical misinformation.

Family members have accused Kennedy of sowing distrust in the science behind vaccines. His campaign has appalled members of his famous Democratic clan.

“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,” Kerry Kennedy, a sister of Kennedy’s, said in a statement.

Bob Shrum, a former aide to Ted Kennedy, said Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci and the federal government’s top medical and scientific agencies would have infuriated his uncle. “It’s contrary to everything his uncle Ted Kennedy ever did,” he said. “He called health care the cause of his life.”

In a statement of his own, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said he had made a “difficult choice to put my principles ahead of my personal affections” for Biden. “Some members of my family agree with me, and others do not,” he added. “I bear them no ill will.”

On Wednesday in Boston, Kennedy was introduced by his wife, Cheryl Ruth Hines, an actress, and he pointed out his children and grandchildren seated in a balcony of the hotel ballroom. But there was a notable absence of members of his family who have made careers in politics. A number of them affirmed their support for Biden’s reelection in recent days, part of a decadeslong alliance between the Biden and Kennedy families.

Ted Kennedy’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, is Biden’s ambassador to Austria. Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of John F. Kennedy, is ambassador to Australia. And Joe Kennedy III, a grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, is Biden’s special envoy to Northern Ireland, who flew with him this month to Belfast.

Though his campaign is unlikely to pose a serious threat to Biden, the strength of emotions expressed by his supporters on Wednesday pointed to a group that is angry and distrustful of traditional Democrats when it comes to vaccines. Any link between childhood vaccines and autism has been widely rebuked by peer-reviewed scientific studies. COVID vaccines, which have been administered to millions of Americans, are safe and effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Nonetheless, misinformation about vaccines swirls online.

Attendees, echoing Kennedy, took aim at a corrupt alliance of big business and government.

“The COVID vaccines are not effective and not safe,” maintained Claire Mortimer, 69, a nurse practitioner who drove from Brooklin, Maine, to hear Kennedy. “I believe that only Bobby Kennedy Jr. is capable of getting rid of the corruption that is so deeply embedded in every agency of our government.”

Andy Migner, 67, who works in regenerative healing in Boston, described herself as a “lifetime Democrat” who now feels politically homeless. She said “our ability to question,” as well as journalism and public debate, “has gone down the tubes.”

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