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The power of a name — and the lack thereof

On April 19, antivaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will kick off his presidential campaign in Boston. No, thank you!

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in 2019Hans Pennink/Associated Press

So, antivax crusader and accomplished crackpot Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has chosen Boston to launch his campaign for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination.

What did we do to deserve this?

On April 19 Kennedy, who, according to his press advisory, “hails from one of the most famous families in American political history,” will make the announcement at the Park Plaza hotel.

But he’s missing a huge opportunity here, location-wise: He’d be greeted as a hero on the street outside Mayor Michelle Wu’s house in Rozzie, the sacred site where other antivaxxers have spent so many mornings loudly fighting the battle for which Kennedy is a kind of patron saint.


Even before COVID, Kennedy spread his antivaccine lies to millions via social media, his nonprofit funding advertisements spreading misinformation. He really came into his own during the pandemic. His demonization of Anthony Fauci, and his wildly false claims, were so prolific that Instagram took down his account in 2021. This is a man who seems blind to boundaries of decency: Last year, at an antivaccine rally in Washington, D.C., Kennedy suggested Anne Frank and others in Nazi Germany had it better than those refusing to get COVID shots today.

“Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps to Switzerland,” he said. The Auschwitz Memorial, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, his sister, and his own wife denounced his comments, and he apologized.

But he’s kept up the fight. Just last week, Kennedy tweeted that the federal government was considering a digital currency so it could “freeze your assets or limit your spending to approved vendors if you fail to comply with arbitrary diktats, i.e. vaccine mandates.”

This is unhinged stuff. Though he’s running for the Democratic nomination, Kennedy moves in some pretty iffy circles, including some who claim the 2020 election was stolen and who downplay the seriousness of the Jan. 6 insurrection. CBS News reported that Trump adviser Steve Bannon has been encouraging Kennedy to run for months, hoping he would be a “chaos agent” in the primary, and stir up antivaccine sentiment.


His kickoff announcement makes no mention of vaccines, of course, describing Kennedy as “a nationally known trial attorney who has successfully championed numerous environmental causes over his long career.” The rest of it is very heavy on the weary family lore.

When I asked why this latest Kennedy with presidential pretensions had chosen Boston for his kickoff, a spokesperson e-mailed to say that in addition to his uncle, the president, and father, the senator, “The American Revolution was born in the Boston area,” and that “Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign is being born in Boston.”

Of course, without his name, Kennedy would be just another fringe-dwelling extremist.

But how much power does that name really carry any more, even around here? Ed Markey’s 2020 defeat of then-Congressman Joe Kennedy III, who challenged him for his US Senate seat, would suggest not much.

In that race, the congressman, a decent person and dedicated public servant, resisted leaning on his famous name earlier in the campaign, but later said he had no choice but to speak of his family because Markey and others had made it an issue.

“If he wants to talk about the Kennedys, then I will talk about the Kennedys,” Joe Kennedy said, invoking his family’s painful history and fights for civil rights at a press conference.


He was responding, in part, to an ad in which Markey reversed President Kennedy’s famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you…”

“We asked what we could do for our country. We went out. We did it.” Markey said. “With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.”

No nuance there. Markey was saying the Kennedy era was over.

And voters eventually agreed: Polls showed older people favoring Kennedy, then 39, while younger ones proved resistant to the lore, favoring Markey, then 74. Other factors were in play, including Markey’s environmental record, but Joe Kennedy’s defeat clearly signaled that, when it came to elections, the family mystique was no more.

Now here comes his uncle Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to make it so, once and for all. Maybe it’s fitting he’s chosen to begin that effort in Boston, where the legend began so long ago.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at Follow her @GlobeAbraham.