Robert F. Kennedy Jr: conspiracy theorist and Democrat challenger

The nephew of assassinated US president John F. Kennedy appears to be gaining ground on Joe Biden after entering the crowded race for the Democratic nomination for president in 2024.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has achieved notoriety as a prominent conspiracy theorist and “leading vaccine sceptic”, said The New York Times. His bid to be the Democratic candidate in next year’s presidential was declared “all but doomed” by Politico after the lawyer and author threw his hat into the ring in April. 

But a CNN poll in May of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters put Kennedy, 69, at about 20% in the primaries. And a YouGov/The Economist survey last week showed Kennedy with the highest net favourability rating of all the current 2024 candidates, at 49%, ahead of Biden and Donald Trump.

Kennedy has a “media-ready image as an heir to the famous political dynasty”, said The Hill, and many Democrats are “growing concerned that his profile is rising”.

Who is Robert F. Kennedy Jr.?

Robert Francis Kennedy Jr. was born in Washington D.C. in 1954, the third of 11 children (and first son) of attorney general and Democratic senator Robert F. Kennedy, also known as Bobby.

He is the fifth member of the Kennedy clan to run for president. His campaign has “sought to capitalise with a heavy dose of 1960s nostalgia”, said Time, and constant references to “my uncle” and “my father”.

Kennedy Jr. was nine when his uncle, then president JFK, was assassinated in 1963. After his father was also assassinated five years later, while running for the Democratic presidential nomination, he was sent to live with a surrogate family. He has since claimed that both men were probably assassinated by the CIA, which the government denies.

The now would-be president had “little initial interest in public office” during his youth, said The Washington Post, and “struggled through school”. 

He was “kicked out of boarding schools and busted for marijuana possession”, said Time. He went on to graduate from Harvard and later the University of Virginia Law School, but continued to dabble with drugs. 

In 1984, he enrolled in a rehabilitation centre.after pleading guilty to charges of heroin possession, for which he received to two years’ probation and community service.

After getting clean, he went on to become an environmental law specialist and was described by Oprah Winfrey as “one of the country’s most passionate environmental activists”. Kennedy also hinted at political ambitions during a 2007 interview with the chat show host, saying that “if opportunities came up for me to run for office, I would probably do it”.

A devout Catholic who attends daily Mass, he is married to “Curb Your Enthusiasm” actor Cheryl Hines, and his six children by his two previous wives.

‘A conspiracy of dunces’

“For more than a decade, Kennedy has promoted anti-vaccine propaganda completely unconnected to reality,” said author Seth Mnookin in Scientific American in 2017.

After disputing the result of the 2004 presidential elections, Kennedy “made his name” among anti-vaxxers the following year, when Rolling Stone and Salon published a 4,700-word article that he had written “alleging a massive conspiracy” about thimerosal. He falsely claimed that the mercury-based compound was still being used in childhood vaccines.

He has been “brazen in publicising outright lies”, according to Mnookin, whose 2011 book about anti-vaxxers, “The Panic Virus”,  contains a chapter on Kennedy called “A Conspiracy of Dunces”. 

Kennedy has a rare voice disorder called spasmodic dysphonia and has suggested his condition is a side effect of the flu vaccine. He has also claimed that Covid vaccines killed more people than they saved. 

In 2021, Instagram removed his account for “debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines”.

Yet his“alarmist” messages have “given him a platform” to fulfill “the ambitions denied his father” and “stolen from his uncle”, said The Washington Post.

Just weeks after his Instagram was reinstated following his 2024 candidacy announcement, YouTube announced on Monday that a video of the presidential hopeful being interviewed by podcast host Jordan Peterson had been removed, for “violating its policy prohibiting vaccine misinformation”.

Kennedy “inhabits an ambiguous ideological space”, said NBC. He supports abortion rights, environmental protection and gun control, but his views on vaccines and other issues, and appearances on outlets such as Fox News and  Alex Jones’s “Infowars” have “made him popular among far-right conspiracy theorists”.

Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon has even floated the idea of a Trump-Kennedy Ticket. The Democrat challenger would be “an excellent choice for president Trump to consider” as a running mate, Bannon said on his “War Room” podcast.

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