By Robert Reich
During a press event last week at an Upper East Side restaurant, Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. claimed that COVID-19 was “targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people.” He said that “the people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.”
Targeted at Caucasians and Blacks? What?
Kennedy Jr. also charged that “the Chinese are spending hundreds of millions of dollars developing ethnic bioweapons and we are developing ethnic bioweapons. They’re collecting Russian DNA. They’re collecting Chinese DNA so we can target people by race.”
According to a poll last week by The Economist and YouGov, Kennedy Junior now has higher favorability numbers than either Biden or Trump.
In recent weeks, a collection of tech moguls have gotten behind him, including former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Social Capital founder Chamath Palihapitiya, and venture capitalist David Sacks. Last month, Elon Musk hosted him for a Twitter Spaces discussion.
If RFK Jr. decides to run as a third-party spoiler, he could well draw voters away from Biden.
Let me paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen’s remark to Dan Quayle during the vice-presidential debate in 1988: I knew Robert F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is no Robert F. Kennedy.
I worked in Robert F. Kennedy’s Senate office in 1967. It was not a glamorous job. I ran the signature machine, making sure that letters to constituents were lined up properly so that the pen at the end of a long automated arm would write out the senator’s name appropriately.
But I did have a chance to get to see Bobby Kennedy close up. I watched him stand up for economic and social justice. I witnessed him bringing together people of every race and ethnicity — to demand equal rights and an end to the Vietnam War.
Robert F. Kennedy would never have suggested or even thought that a deadly virus was targeted at certain races. He wouldn’t have repeated the trope, dating at least to the Middle Ages, that Jews unleashed a plague on non-Jews.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. stands for the opposite of what his father did.
In addition to his gonzo bioweapons ethnic conspiracy theory, RFK Jr. has promoted the baseless claim linking vaccines to autism. He’s been a leading proponent of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, suggesting the vaccine has killed more people than it has saved.
He doesn’t support a ban on assault weapons and blames the rise of mass shootings in America on pharmaceutical drugs.
In his 2021 book, The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health, he alleged, without plausible evidence, that Fauci sabotaged treatments for AIDS, violated federal laws, and conspired with Bill Gates and social media companies to suppress information about COVID-19 cures in order to leave vaccines as the only options to fight the pandemic.
RFK Jr.’s misinformation about vaccines continues to endanger public health. The United States is now in the midst of the largest measles outbreak in 25 years, but not nearly enough young people have been vaccinated against the disease.
Another contrast with his father and his uncle: In 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed the Vaccination Assistance Act in order to, in the words of a CDC report, “achieve as quickly as possible the protection of the population, especially of all preschool children … through intensive immunization activity.”)
Were it not for his illustrious name, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. would be just another crackpot in the growing number of bottom-feeding right-wing fringe politicians seeking high office. But the Robert F. Kennedy brand is political gold.
As I’ve written before, RFK Jr.’s candidacy saddens me. He could have done something meaningful with his life and his name. Earlier on, he showed promise as a staunch environmentalist before veering into gonzo conspiracy theories. He has correctly identified widening inequality and corporate power as threats to American democracy.
I remember him at the age of 13, running around the pool at RFK’s family compound at Hickory Hill amid the whooping and hollering of the vast Kennedy clan, full of energy and laughter.
Mostly, though, I remember his dad, and all the promise RFK represented for America. And, of course, the heartbreaking assassination on June 6, 1968, the evening RFK won the California primary.
That Robert F. Kennedy’s namesake would attract 20 percent of Democratic voters 55 years later is testament to the continuing power of that memory.
It’s also a tragic reminder of how far America has veered from it.