Robert F. Kennedy Jr. formally launched his candidacy for the Democratic Party in the 2024 US presidential election on April 19. He is competing against fellow Democrat and current president Joe Biden.
His prospects are multilateral. His critics say he has too many “skeletons in the closet” to stand a real chance. On the other hand, there is his impressive lineage and Biden’s shaken reputation and increasingly paltry track record. His views on US foreign policy are more balanced, including on the war in Ukraine.
Robert Francis Kennedy Jr. (RFK Jr.) was born on January 17, 1954, in Washington, DC, one of 11 children of Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy. His father, a former US attorney general and Democratic senator for New York, was killed in 1968. RFK Jr. is the nephew of former US President John F. Kennedy, who was also assassinated, and former US Senator Ted Kennedy.
RFK Jr. was raised to value political activism and education from a young age. His autobiography “American Values: Lessons I Learned from My Family” illustrates how his core values began to develop in his childhood. In the book, RFK Jr. describes how he grew up as a member of the Kennedy dynasty in a turbulent time in history, marked by issues with race, the threat of nuclear war, social injustice, and religion.
RFK Jr.’s uncle, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963. He was only nine years old at the time. His father was killed while running for the Democratic presidential nomination just five years later. He found out at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Maryland. Just several hours later, he was already in Los Angeles with his older siblings Joseph and Kathleen and saw his father before he died. He was a pallbearer at his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.
Such highly publicized and deeply personal events helped form his values without a doubt. He has had some unique personal experiences with his parents. After struggling with drug addiction for over a decade, he eventually made peace with his demons and his family’s legacy, ultimately becoming stronger.
Kennedy was expelled from two boarding schools for using drugs: Millbrook (New York) and Pomfret (Connecticut). He graduated from Palfrey Street School in Massachusetts. Fourteen years would pass before he would overcome drug abuse.
Another personal trauma involved Robert Kennedy Jr.’s second wife, Mary Kathleen Richardson, with whom he had four children. She committed suicide in 2012, two years after their divorce. The death was ruled a suicide by hanging, asphyxiation being the direct cause.
Core values of RFK Jr.
Here is some insight into the presidential candidate’s core values and why they are important.
RFK Jr. started using marijuana and psychedelic drugs at 14, soon after his father died. He has said he did it to bury his “anger and sadness.” Eventually, he moved on to harder drugs, including heroin. He was charged with heroin possession in 1983, a bad year for him by all accounts. He had failed his bar exam a few months earlier. He pleaded guilty the following year and was sentenced to two years of community service and probation.
He went into rehab after his arrest and volunteered for the Natural Resources Defense Council during his probation, which he completed a year early. His work at the Council marked the beginning of his environmental activism, another core value.
He has not forgotten his 14-year battle with drugs. If elected, he plans to decriminalize marijuana and psychedelics use and tax the related income. His core value of freedom extends to gun control. He has said he supports “common sense” gun control and would not “take away anybody’s guns.”
RFK Jr. holds a Master’s Degree in environmental law from Pace University. In 1984, he started working for Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization involved with the protection of the Hudson River area. After passing his bar exam, he completed his community service there and began work as the chief attorney.
Kennedy is a passionate environmental justice advocate. He is an environmental law expert and a partner in Kennedy & Madonna, LLP, and Morgan & Morgan.
He founded Tear of the Clouds, a bottled water company, with Chris Bartle and John Hoving in 1998. In 1999, he helped launch the global Waterkeeper Alliance, which assists environmental organizations across the globe in protecting their aquatic territories. He focused on renewable energy and waterway protection for the next several years.
Time Magazine named him “Hero for the Planet” in 2010 for his work with Riverkeeper.
Kennedy was a senior advisor and venture partner at VantagePoint Capital, one of the biggest cleantech venture capital companies in the world. This company has backed Tesla, BrightSource Energy, and Solazyme. He is on the boards of several of Vantage Point’s portfolio firms in the energy and water sector.
He has advocated to transition away from fossil fuels and criticized the US military for the environmental damage it causes. Representing residents and fishermen from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, he sued the US Navy to stop testing weapons and performing military exercises. He argued the Navy had destroyed a number of endangered species, damaged the island’s economy, harmed locals’ health, and polluted the waters with its activities.
He protested the use of part of the island for military training and was arrested for trespassing at the Navy’s training facility. He spent a month in a maximum security prison after that. Eventually, his lawsuit and protests compelled then-president George Bush to terminate the naval bombing in Vieques.
Robert Kennedy Jr. has been an outspoken opponent of dams and pipelines, especially projects that affect indigenous people. He joined a substantial protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, in which Native Americans from numerous tribes were taking part.
He has argued that people living below the poverty line bear a disproportionate pollution burden. His first case as an environmental lawyer was on behalf of the NAACP against a proposal to construct a waste disposal station in a New York neighborhood populated mainly by minorities.
He sued New York to reopen two parks that poor and minority community members from the Bronx were using. In a speech at the 2016 SXSW environment conference, he noted that Chicago’s poverty-stricken south side had the most toxic waste dumps in the country.
His firm, Kennedy & Madonna, was involved in an extensive lawsuit against Ford for dumping toxic waste on the land of the Ramapough Mountain Indians in New Jersey. HBO made a documentary about the case.
Kennedy, who is a devout Catholic, considers his patron to be Saint Francis of Assisi. He was devoted to social justice, animal welfare, helping people experiencing poverty, and ecology. He even wrote a book about his patron saint – Saint Francis of Assisi: A Life of Joy.
Almost a fifth of Americans did not get vaccinated against COVID-19. Robert Kennedy is a prominent anti-vaxxer, which speaks to his value of honesty. He declared that the pandemic would benefit the richest. He has claimed it resulted in $4.4 trillion of wealth moving from the American middle class to billionaires. He said the pandemic generated 500 new billionaires, and existing billionaires got 30% richer.
He is opposed to all kinds of vaccines and has been for more than 15 years. Public health experts have described his claims as unsafe and misleading. Children’s Health Defense, Kennedy’s anti-vaccine charity organization, flourished during the lockdown. Financial records show its revenues grew to almost $7 million in 2020, more than twice what they were before the pandemic.
The organization has spoken out against what it deems false claims to African Americans and other groups that could be likelier to distrust vaccines.
Kennedy targeted Anthony Fauci, the leading medical expert on infectious diseases in the US, in the 2021 book “The Real Anthony Fauci.” He accused him of promoting ivermectin, an unproven COVID-19 treatment, and hydroxychloroquine, a drug treating malaria, without considering their potentially severe side effects.
Kennedy is in favor of reducing US intervention in conflicts all over the world. He wrote an article titled “Why the Arabs Don’t Want Us in Syria,” which Politico published in February 2016, and leveled sharp criticism at “modern interventionists like George W. Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio.” He opines that the war in Syria broke out over a pipeline dispute. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rejected a project to build a pipeline through Syria from Qatar to Turkey in 2009, according to materials published by WikiLeaks.
Recently, he said the US’s role in the war in Ukraine is “terrible for the Ukrainian people,” adding his country neglected a lot of opportunities to settle the conflict in a peaceful way. He didn’t go into details, but he did point out that NATO and US policy toward Russia and Ukraine created preconditions for the war to break out. He believes Ukraine has become “a pawn in a proxy war” between the US and Russia.
He embraces financial technology of the future, like digital assets. In a speech at the Bitcoin Miami Conference this year, he said he was accepting donations in Bitcoin for his presidential campaign. He believes cryptocurrency is an innovative tool with a lot of potential. However, he has criticized Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs), which banks issue. He believes there is a risk that governments will restrict people’s access to funds via their central banks.
He is also against a crypto mining tax proposed by the Biden administration. As an environmentalist, he supports the unexpected stance that the use of energy to mine crypto is somewhat exaggerated.
Does he have “presidential” values?
A recent poll by Fox News showed that 16% of Democratic voters support RFK Jr. This is a high number against an incumbent president of the same party.
Why are RFK Jr.’s values important? If elected, will he be a successful president? To answer that, one must clarify what values a US president should have. By multiple accounts, they include authenticity, strength, integrity, and vision.
RFK Jr. is quite outspoken with a strong sense of authenticity. Without authenticity, all other values would come off as salesy or marketing. RFK Jr. conveys authenticity by knowing who he is and expressing it. It follows that voters would feel a real connection with him, not the result of a communications strategy.
He overcame his father’s death, uncle’s death, wife’s suicide, and drug addiction. Strength is a value any leader should have. His strength isn’t the fake kind of someone who does something without listening, gets involved in a war without thinking about the consequences, or thinks he’s always right.
RFK Jr. conveys integrity by being transparent, open, and honest about his decisions. This is a key value for an American president because it’s accepted that the media and the public can be trusted with the truth.
Finally, the presidential candidate demonstrates the value of innovation by embracing new technology. The 21st century represents a break with tradition. Tried-and-true tactics no longer work. The government will need to be organized in a new way. The best leader will let go of the political plans of the past and move into the future with a completely different approach.