His uncle did it, and became president. His father did it, and helped force a sitting president out of office while almost winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Then his younger uncle did it, and nearly toppled a sitting president of his own party.
That’s not all. His brother did it, overcoming a strong Democratic field to capture a House seat. His sister did it, winning a tough lieutenant governor race and positioning herself to win a gubernatorial nomination. His nephew did it, challenging a Democratic veteran for a Senate seat but falling short. And his grandfather thought about it, and gave Franklin Delano Roosevelt sufficient reason to appoint him World War II-era ambassador to Great Britain and get him out of the country.
So who is to say that Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — onetime environmental crusader turned antivaccine activist, bearing a name that time has not tarnished — should not have his own seize-the-moment opportunity in the bright sunshine of American politics?
Plenty of people, it turns out. They are troubled, baffled, irate, saddened by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s against-all-conventional-reason challenge, particularly as the anniversary of the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy arrived this week, bringing with it 60-year commemorations and reminiscences.
And yet despite being greeted by widespread horror and pained dismissal, Robert Kennedy Jr.’s quest has, in its outlandish improbability, at least faint trace elements of the family’s political playbook — as the generations of boundary-busting candidates bearing the Kennedy name demonstrates.
More iconoclast than icon, RFK Jr. — as he is known, shrewdly appropriating and seeking to exploit three letters that have a peculiar ability to make some hearts race and eyes moisten — does, however, have an unusual, and unusually ardent, set of detractors.
The critics include brothers and sisters who grew up with him, shared the searing and enduring pain of their father’s assassination in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen, and now have disavowed his campaign in the strongest possible language, with four of his siblings releasing a statement saying, “We denounce his candidacy and believe it to be perilous for our country.”
His relatives are joined by Democratic operatives who rushed to his father’s side to oppose Lyndon B. Johnson, supported a dozen Kennedy family causes and campaigns, but steer clear of this one.
His deprecators include a panoply of progressive political figures who fear that his campaign will throw next year’s presidential election to Donald Trump because, as former House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, himself a two-time presidential candidate, put it in an interview, “though he may see this as another impossible Kennedy campaign like the others, it may turn out that this impossible campaign could make a tyrant-president possible.”
The denigrators include dozens of family “retainers”— a word seldom applied to any other clan —who consider him an apostate at best, a menace at worst, and as a stain on the family heritage they helped build. But few are bold enough to say so. Indeed, in five months of unavailing effort, it was difficult to find more than a few members of the intimate inner Kennedy circle — aides, colleagues, authors — who would even speak on the record about Robert F. Kennedy’s son.
One of the few is Peter Edelman, who was involved in Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s decision to undertake his 1968 presidential campaign. “Bobby Jr. is an individual person, not part of a trend,” he said. “He’s got a name he’s using to get attention. If he was Joe Jones, this would be nothing. That’s all there is to it.”
In that assessment is a 60-years-later reprise of the only memorable line from the 1962 Massachusetts senatorial debate between Attorney General Edward McCormack, himself part of a prominent political family, and the 30-year-old Edward M. Kennedy, the brother of the 35th president. “If your name was simply Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy,” McCormack said, “your candidacy would be a joke.”
Repeated requests since June for an interview with RFK Jr. were unavailing.
RFK Jr. may strike many Democrats and Kennedy-ites as wrong about vaccines; or insensitive and mistaken about his comparison of antivaxxers to Anne Frank’s plight; or horribly misguided in his view that the CIA played a role in the deaths of his uncle and father; or cruel in his comments about his 95-year-old mother, Ethel Kennedy (“her love didn’t always feel unconditional,” he said in his memoir). But there may be an unpalatable morsel of truth in his view that, in its own way, his campaign is consistent with his family’s political pattern.
For four generations, beginning with his grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, his relatives have sought to capture prizes that the purveyors of conventional wisdom considered beyond their reach, sometimes beyond their ability. RFK Jr. is the fourth member of his family for whom the phrase “Kennedy for President” has been applied. He is the third Kennedy to challenge a sitting president of his own party. His political lineage extends back to his great-great-grandfather, P.J. Kennedy, who won a seat in the Massachusetts House in 1884.
It is heady company — heady enough, his critics and scholars argue, to cloud human judgment.
“There is no resemblance in what he is doing to what his father or uncle or anyone in his family did,” said Sarah Purcell, a historian at Grinnell College in Iowa. “No competent historian would or could make that comparison.”
But instead of John Quincy Adams and George W. Bush, who won the White House after their fathers’ presidencies, Kennedy has become more the modern-day equivalent of William Franklin, who became a Tory leader at the time his father Ben was a Founding Father; or Randolph Churchill, who sought and ignominiously failed to capture anything like the fire that ignited his famous father’s rhetoric and defiant, wartime leadership.
“I’ve been involved with the Kennedy family for most of my life, and everybody — in the family, close friends — is appalled,” said Joe Trippi, who as a college senior dropped out of San Jose University to work in Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s 1980 primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter and is an unusual voice willing to assail, on the record rather than in private whispers, the latest family presidential candidacy. “The Kennedy name is the foundation of the modern Democratic Party. ... There is a hopelessness to trying to explain this to him.”
And yet hopelessness is part of the fuel — perhaps the rationale — for this latest Robert Kennedy campaign, though this month’s New York Times/Siena College Poll showed that he has the support of 24 percent of the electorate in the six battleground states that likely will swing the election. In his April campaign announcement identifying himself with his father’s seemingly quixotic 1968 effort, he said that it was “that hopelessness in his campaign that gave him freedom to tell the truth to the American people.”
No pollster, scholar, mainstream strategist, or veteran activist sees a plausible path from Kennedy’s October move from a Democratic candidacy to a third-party effort and then to the White House. But when RFK Jr., whose narrow neckties are evocative of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and the era of the 1960s, does his morning grooming he clearly sees a mirror image of his overreaching forebears.
In his April campaign announcement — made at Boston’s Park Plaza, where Kennedys traditionally have held events — he spoke of how, from their immigrant start in America at the middle of the 19th century, members of his family “took to politics like man to food.” He referenced, as he does on the stump, “my uncle,” the 35th president, and drew a comparison between his 2024 campaign and the 1968 presidential campaign of his father, which ended when RFK was killed in California, his namesake, then just 14, a mouth-agape witness.
“My father at the time in many ways was in the same position I’m in today,” the son said. “He was running against a president of his own party, he was running against a war, he was running at a time of unprecedented polarization in our country, and he had no chance of winning. My father when he declared had not a single molecule in him that believed he could win the Democratic nomination.”
RFK Jr. clearly has channeled his grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, who once said, “For the Kennedys, it’s the castle or the outhouse.” But the historical comparisons that he is employing in his drive to the “castle” are more easily uttered on the campaign stump than defended in the faculty lounge by scholars of American politics.
“It is a stretch because none of the other Kennedys went into a campaign with the kind of baggage this new RFK brings,” said Robert Dallek, the retired Boston University historian and author of the 2003 “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963.” “The other Kennedys were mainstream figures, but he is way out of the mainstream. This Kennedy seems to go off the edge of respectability.”
There is fertile material in the family’s past to provide RFK Jr. with the hypothesis — in his case, the conviction — that the impracticability of his relations’ political campaigns would be matched with irresistible success in his.
Though John F. Kennedy may have felt he that he was ideally positioned for a seat in Congress in 1946, he had none of the usual qualifications — prior office, even residence in the district where he would undertake his campaign. He was, as Herbert S. Parmet put it in “Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy,” published in 1970, “a bright and wealthy young veteran, one of remarkable distinction for his age, already associated with selflessness, patriotism and public service” — a particularly attractive profile in a period when veterans were being feted and featured.
JFK mulled other options. Maybe a run for lieutenant governor. Or a longshot bid for the 11th District House seat being vacated by James M. Curley, who, perhaps with more than a nudge from Joseph P. Kennedy, had returned to City Hall as mayor.
Once JFK chose to run for the House, he faced two other obstacles — each ordinarily insuperable for political mortals not named Kennedy.
One was his own lack of bona fides. He consulted with a local politico, Dan O’Brien and jotted down the liabilities O’Brien had named. “Says I’ll be murdered — No personal experience — A personal district — Says I don’t know 300 people personally.” Kennedy countered with his own attributes, including “In politics you don’t have friends — you have confederates” and “The best politician is the man who does not think too much of the political consequences of his every act” — two notions that clearly are propelling his nephew.
JFK was little interested in life in the House, its only value to him being a launching pad to higher office. He thought about taking on Senator Leverett Saltonstall in 1948 or maybe even running for governor. Though Governor Paul Dever was toying with the notion to enter the 1952 Senate race to fight for the seat held by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the young congressman pressed ahead and ran. The eventual race was a classic Massachusetts contest of the surging Irish against the staid Yankee. It was, to be sure, a gamble — every indication suggested that 1952 would be a good Republican year, with Dwight D. Eisenhower at the top of the ticket, and that’s what it turned out to be, with GOP gains in the Senate (two seats) and the House (22). Even so, Kennedy prevailed.
The potential leap to the vice presidency in 1956 was an even more audacious move. Adlai Stevenson had left the selection of his running mate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (“The choice is yours,” he told the delegates. “The profit will be the nation’s.”) Immediately the attention turned to Senators Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee, and, the darkest of dark horses, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, still in his first term. His father urged him to demur. Governor Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, who would be an early supporter of Kennedy for the 1960 Democratic nomination, said that “everybody tried to block Kennedy” in Chicago, explaining, “He wasn’t a great senator” and his colleagues in the chamber looked on him as a “whippersnapper.”
The whippersnapper didn’t prevail, but he profited from the near-miss, which gave him national exposure and showed that he possessed unexpected potential strength in the South. The effort had the additional advantage of keeping him off a ticket that was destined to lose. The smart move, it turned out, was to postpone for an additional four years the first test, after Al Smith’s 1924 campaign defeat, of a Catholic on a national ticket.
As the 1960 race approached, Kennedy repeatedly tried to win the support of the liberals who, along with the Southern bourbons, were the principal power in the selection of the party’s nominee. But it was hard going; once again Kennedy was regarded as an arriviste. He won anyway.
The pattern returned for Robert F. Kennedy Sr. in 1968, with the Vietnam War raging, Lyndon Johnson weakening, and protests growing. There was pressure to run — from the JFK diaspora, from antiwar activists, from Ethel Kennedy herself — but he hesitated. In January 1968 he told a friend, “I think if I run, I will go a long way toward proving everything that everybody who doesn’t like me has said about me … that I’m just a selfish, ambitious little SOB who can’t wait to get his hands on the White House.” The journalist Joseph Alsop predicted, “He will destroy himself. He will destroy his party.”
But if RFK Jr. is a branch on a considerable family tree of people who defied ordinary conventional thinking and took on very long odds, he may be the only one in that rambunctious roster who defied the express private wishes and public sentiments of his family.
Right now Democrats, who for more than a generation have sought to recapture the Kennedy mystique and in many cases sought to appropriate the Kennedy style, are apoplectic about the arrival of the newest Kennedy on the presidential-campaign scene. Those feelings redoubled when Kennedy abandoned the primary fight against Joe Biden and undertook an Independent candidacy.
Their fear: Kennedy will siphon sufficient votes from Biden in key states to swing the election to Trump. No independent presidential candidate has won an electoral vote since Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama did in 1968, but non-major party candidates still have had a significant effect, particularly in the year 2000, when Green Party candidate Ralph Nader won enough votes to very likely cost Al Gore the White House.
“There is zero point zero chance that RFK Jr. will be president, but he could have an enormous impact,” said Matt Bennett, executive vice president of Third Way, a center-left Democratic-oriented think tank. “I am not at all convinced he will hurt Trump. Anything that divides the anti-Trump coalition is bad.”
“People are reacting to his name, and as people have gotten to know him, his support has gone down,” said Greg Schneiders, a veteran Democratic pollster working to assure a two-person presidential race. “Even if you don’t know what effect his candidacy will have, it’s playing with fire without any chance of winning.”
That’s clearly part of the worry of Rory Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy II, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend — his siblings.
“Bobby might share the same name as our father,” they said in a statement, “but he does not share the same values, vision or judgment.”
But, again, his campaign is a continuation, in its way, of a long family line.
His uncle Edward Kennedy, whose legacy is his productive years in the Senate rather than his failed presidential campaign, believed that the brass ring of opportunity comes around rarely, and when it does, the daring take a chance.
“The Kennedys are classic line-cutters,” said Thomas Whalen, a Boston University social sciences professor. “From the very beginning they have gone by their own time tables, and they don’t start out running for the city council.” That is the cause both of the inspiration they have sown — and the consternation they have reaped, and are reaping again this autumn.