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How RFK Kennedy Jr. turned from tragedy and tumult to environmentalism before becoming the face of vaccine skepticism

Brent D. Griffiths   

How RFK Kennedy Jr. turned from tragedy and tumult to environmentalism before becoming the face of vaccine skepticism
  • Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s early life was overshadowed by the murder of his father.
  • He later struggled with a drug addiction.

Robert F. Kennedy's children have spent a lifetime trying to add their marks to their slain father's legacy. They made history in public service, followed his footsteps into Congress, and contributed to an Academy Award-nominated documentary. Like their relatives born into the generation after Camelot, some struggled to shake the tinge of tragedy and scandal that continues to hang around the famous family.

Robert F. Kennedy's namesake has seen all elements of this journey.

The first Kennedy to run for the presidency in decades, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is doing so without the family's well-documented loyalty. Instead, some of his siblings have begged him to drop out. For years, they have worried, in increasingly public ways, that he's eroding the foundation of why the nation reveres them so much in the first place.

The son of the expected next Kennedy president.

Born into privilege in 1954, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was raised between Massachusetts and suburban Virginia estates. He took an early interest in the outdoors, an affinity aided by the menagerie of animals kept at Hickory Hill, the family's McLean, Virginia mansion. He was the third of the 11 eventual children born to RFK and Ethel Kennedy.

He was asleep in his dorm at Georgetown Preparatory School on June 5, 1968, when a priest awoke him. He wasn't told what was happening, only that a ride would soon take him back to Hickory Hill. At the family home, he was told his dad had been shot the night before. He, Kathleen, and Joseph P. II flew out on Vice President Hubert Humphery's plane in a rush to be by their father's side.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was later a pallbearer at his father's funeral, joined by Astronaut John Glenn and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

The 14-year-old never returned to Georgetown Prep, which now counts two Supreme Court justices and multiple lawmakers among its influential alumni. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. bounced between three private schools before graduating from high school.

At Millbrook School in New York, he briefly kept a lion cub gifted to him by former "Tonight Show" host Jack Paar. Kennedy was forced to find a new home for the animal, aptly named Mtoto Mbaya, "Boy Boy" in Swahili, after a string of incidents, including when it bit the backside of the school's zoo keeper, according to "Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the Dark Side of the Dream," an unauthorized 2015 biography. It wasn't the animal that got him kicked out.

Kennedy had begun to use drugs and not just marijuana, according to the 2015 book. Officials became increasingly concerned that they would be held responsible if another Kennedy died on their watch. Years later, Kennedy would tell Oprah that the source of his drug problems didn't truly matter. He viewed his problems more as being a product of the 1960s. Whatever the reason, his drug use would lead to repeated brushes with the law.

Kennedy graduates from Harvard, but drug use continues to hang over him.

After graduating from high school, Kennedy attended Harvard, the alma mater of his father, uncle, and grandfather. Like JFK, RFK Jr. would see his senior thesis turned into a book. Unfortunately for him, reviewers reacted harshly to the tome about federal judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., whose rulings played a major role in the Civil Rights movement.

After briefly attending the London School of Economics, Kennedy graduated from the University of Virginia Law School. While in Charlottesville, Kennedy met his first wife, Emily Black. Their wedding in Black's native Bloomington, Indiana, received international coverage as the Midwesterner joined the nation's foremost political family. The couple had two children together.

He filed for divorce in 1994 in the Dominican Republic, taking advantage of a local law that allows foreigners to file for divorce there and potentially trying to avoid media scrutiny.

In March 1982, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, whom JFK had previously appointed to lead the famous Southern District of New York, hired RFK Jr. as an assistant district attorney. The famous son's first brush with politics in New York, the state his father represented in the US Senate, did not go well. Kennedy struggled to pass the bar exam. He resigned in July 1983.

Months later, Kennedy would spark his largest legal scandal. While on the way to receive treatment in South Dakota for his addiction, a fellow passenger found him sick in an airplane's bathroom. Local authorities later found a small amount of heroin in his belongings. He faced up to two years in prison, according to The New York Times. Kennedy was sentenced to probation and community service.

Kennedy found a new advocacy after his lowest moment.

Kennedy's lowest moment led to his greatest reinvention. As part of his community service, he worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council and was later connected with the Hudson River Fishermen's Association. Robert Boyle, founder of the New York environmental group, began to mentor Kennedy. The organization already had notched major legal victories, but Kennedy's star power would help take it to new heights.

He was so committed to his new career that in 1994, he married Mary Richardson, a longtime friend of his sister Kerry Kennedy, aboard a ship on the Hudson River.

But his relationship with Boyle did not last. His mentor later recalled that he was less than thrilled about the celebrities Kennedy soon brought onto the organization's board. He also chafed at his former protegé's other actions, particularly Kennedy's decision to hire a scientist named William Wegner. Kennedy defended hiring Wegner, who had served time in federal prison, saying that giving him a second chance was the right thing to do. Boyle was incensed given that Wegener was sentenced over his connections to a bird smuggling ring. Boyle and seven other officials later resigned from Riverkeeper's board in protest.

"I think he's a despicable person," Boyle told Kennedy's unauthorized biographer in 2014. Boyle's children recently told The Washington Post that his father later couldn't even bear looking at the Hudson as it was too much of a reminder of Kennedy's betrayal.

As for Kennedy, his environmental advocacy became the foundation of his fame. In 1999, Time Magazine named Kennedy one of its "Heroes for the Planet" as part of a series of reports on leading environmentalists.

While gaining fame, Kennedy began to notice problems with his voice. He recently told The Los Angeles Times that he was 42 when he first noticed the problem. Kennedy was later diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a rare neurological condition that affects muscles in one's voice box.

In 2010, Kennedy filed for divorce from Richardson, the mother of four of his six children. Two years later, she died by suicide at the couple's former Bedford estate.

After years of environmentalism, Kennedy became the face of anti-vaccine advocacy.

After decades of environmental advocacy, Kennedy prepared to make his most controversial turn. In his retelling, mothers began to approach him at events to question whether vaccines had affected their children.

In 2005, Kennedy wrote a piece for Salon and Rolling Stone that is now regarded as establishing him as a major player in spreading vaccine skepticism. Despite his claims of a major conspiracy over a mercury-based preservative that had already been "removed from all childhood vaccines except for some variations of the flu vaccine in 2001," according to STAT. Within days, Salon, which published the piece online, issued five corrections. In 2011, the site decided to retract the article entirely.

In 2014, Kennedy married the actress Cheryl Hines, best known for her co-starring role in the Larry David-led "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

One year later, Kennedy joined the World Health Defense Fund. He continued to be involved with Riverkeeper, but his anti-vaccine advocacy overwhelmed his public persona.

Kennedy's name fueled his rise in the movement, which drew on the credibility of his environmentalism and his famous family. In turn, the now-presidential hopeful began to cobble together what the Associated Press would later deem "an anti-vaccine juggernaut" that he deployed when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.

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