Until recently, it was still possible to regard Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as merely an oddball, the black sheep of his famous political family, who took a wrong turn into nutty anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. The son of former attorney general Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, he was once regarded as a successful environmental lawyer and at one point was even considered a potential attorney general candidate in New York.
In recent years, though, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kennedy’s anti-vaccine advocacy has taken a much darker turn. His rhetoric is now tinged with inflammatory references to Nazi Germany, and he has played an active role leading and raising money for organized anti-vaccine groups. In the latest outrage, he made an offensive comparison to Holocaust victim Anne Frank in a speech, implying that Frank had more freedom than Americans have now under government vaccine mandates.
“Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps to Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did,” Kennedy said. (His wife publicly repudiated his comment, and he later apologized. Sort of.)
For the rest of the Kennedy family, and the big local institutions named after and affiliated with its more mainstream members, RFK Jr. has become an acute embarrassment, and many of the family have forcefully disavowed his rhetoric. But his growing fame — he is now, arguably, the most prominent Kennedy remaining in public life — also presents the family and institutions like the John F. Kennedy Library in Dorchester with an opportunity. If they ask what they could do for their country, as JFK asked of all of us in his 1961 inaugural address, what they can do right now is join the fight for vaccination and public health.
Indeed, doing so would align with what President Kennedy said in that same speech, in which he called on both sides in the Cold War to work together to “eradicate disease.”
And in fact, some Kennedy family affiliates are already taking up that burden and using their prestige to support vaccines. The Edward M. Kennedy Institute pointedly chose to give a recent award for inspired leadership to the CEOs of Moderna and Pfizer, the companies that developed two of the COVID-19 vaccines. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the group named for RFK Jr.s’ father, recently gave one of its awards to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the man his son says is helping to lead “a historic coup d’etat against Western democracy.” Those choices sent an important message.
Now imagine if the John F. Kennedy Library were to award one of its Profile in Courage awards to a public official who has stood up to the bullying of RFK Jr., or his allies, or the toxic movement that has taken inspiration from having a Kennedy on their side. There would be plenty of candidates to choose from. In New York City, six firefighters showed up driving a ladder truck at the office of a state senator to protest the mayor’s vaccine mandate for all city workers and told the senator’s staffers that they would have “blood on their hands” if the mandate wasn’t suspended. In Hawaii, the lieutenant governor was harassed outside his condo by picketing anti-vaccine protesters who yelled at him and his family using bullhorns. Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston has faced hateful vitriol and daily protesters outside her home. And California state Senator Dr. Richard Pan, a steadfast champion of vaccinations, has been a frequent target of anti-vaxxer ire even before COVID-19: He was physically attacked on the street by an anti-vaxxer in 2019.
The fact that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has become a de facto leader of the anti-vaccine movement makes anything the rest of his family does to support vaccines that much more powerful. And he is a leader: Kennedy was included last year in “The Disinformation Dozen,” a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit that has been monitoring and researching misinformation and disinformation during the pandemic. The report identified the 12 most prolific disseminators of anti-vax messaging online. This is “a small group of individuals who do not have relevant medical expertise and have their own pockets to line, who are abusing social media platforms to misrepresent the threat of Covid and spread misinformation about the safety of vaccines,” researchers wrote. Kennedy and the others named were responsible for 65 percent of such content shared or posted on Facebook and Twitter.
About those lined pockets: Children’s Health Defense, Kennedy’s nonprofit that spreads anti-vaccine rhetoric through its website and newsletter, has prospered during the pandemic. In 2018, Kennedy’s nonprofit reported $1.1 million in gross revenue; by 2020, it was $6.8 million, according to an investigation by the Associated Press. The AP found that RFK Jr. has capitalized on the Kennedy name, which has given his nonprofit credibility and helped him open doors and bring in more donors. Before the pandemic, the Children’s Health Defense’s website was getting fewer than 150,000 visits per month; last summer, the website traffic reached more than 4 million monthly visits.
None of us choose our relatives, and the rest of the Kennedy family bears no responsibility for RFK Jr.’s dangerous and offensive antics. But his actions have handed the family — and the whole Kennedy-industrial complex in Massachusetts — a chance to support public health in a way that will undoubtedly resonate far louder because of the growing notoriety of their wayward cousin.
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