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Robert Francis Kennedy Jr.

(1954 - )

Robert Francis Kennedy Jr. was born on January 17, 1954, in Washington, D.C., to Robert F. Kennedy, the U.S. Attorney General and Senator of New York, and Ethel Skakel Kennedy. His father was assassinated while campaigning for president in 1968.

Growing up, Kennedy struggled with drug abuse, leading to his expulsion from two boarding schools and arrest for marijuana possession at age 16. He later graduated from Harvard University in 1976, earning a bachelor’s degree in American history and literature. In 1981, Kennedy received his law degree from the University of Virginia, and in 1982 began to work as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. Kennedy’s career was tarnished because he failed the bar exam the following year and, after a drug overdose, was arrested for heroin possession. He entered a treatment program and, on a later attempt, passed the bar exam and was admitted to the state bar in 1985.

During his probation, Kennedy volunteered with the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association (now Riverkeeper), a nonprofit dedicated to cleaning the Hudson River and litigating against polluters. He served as chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. In 1987, he earned a master’s in environmental law from Pace University and co-founded its environmental litigation clinic.

In 1999, Kennedy launched the Waterkeeper Alliance, a clean water advocacy group based in Manhattan. Today, the Waterkeeper Alliance unites a worldwide network of Waterkeeper organizations to protect water bodies.

By the early 2000s, Kennedy had become a leading advocate for environmental and human rights issues. A strong critic of George W. Bush’s environmental policies, he published Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy in 2004.

Kennedy’s comments on vaccines and public health attracted controversy. In 2005, Kennedy wrote op-eds in Rolling Stone and Salon, alleging a link between autism and thimerosal in vaccines. This was debunked and retracted in 2011. However, he continued to endorse the discredited theory. In 2016, Kennedy became chief legal counsel and board chair for the World Mercury Project, promoting a link between autism and thimerosal. He also wrote several anti-vaccine books.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Kennedy spread misinformation about vaccines, alleging they caused injuries and deaths. He also claimed that Anthony Fauci and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sought to profit from the pandemic. RFK Jr.’s comparison of pandemic measures to the Holocaust and his portrayal of Anthony Fauci as a fascist drew much criticism. His remark, “Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps to Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did,” was widely criticized as insensitive and inappropriate. Kennedy later apologized for this remark, and it was the second time he had apologized for referencing the Holocaust in his anti-vaccine advocacy.

In April 2023, Kennedy announced he would run in the 2024 U.S. presidential election, challenging Joe Biden for the Democratic Party’s nomination. He initially garnered strong support due to his family’s legacy; however, members of the family criticized his entry into the race and endorsed Joe Biden.

In July 2023, Kennedy’s campaign saw more support from Republicans than from mainstream Democrats. He attracted few donors from either party and ultimately decided to run as an independent candidate for the presidential election. In March 2024, Kennedy announced Nicole Shanahan as his running mate.

Throughout his campaign, Kennedy expressed conflicting views regarding Israel. Kennedy described the issue of the United States providing unconditional aid to Israel as “a lengthy and intricate matter.” He explained that Palestinians are mistreated but also blamed the lack of a two-state solution on Palestinians, accusing their leadership of prioritizing violence over diplomacy.

On June 4, 2023, Kennedy marched with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in New York’s Celebrate Israel parade, pledging to be a “champion for Israel as president.” This followed a meeting in which Boteach explained to Kennedy how Roger Waters was anti-Semitic, prompting Kennedy to delete a quote in support of Waters.

Kennedy has six children.

Sources: René Ostberg, “Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.,” Britannica, (May 24, 2024).
“About Us,” Waterkeeper Alliance.
Marlene Lenthang, “Robert F. Kennedy Jr. apologizes for Anne Frank reference in anti-vaccine speech,” NBC News, (January 25, 2022).
Ben Samuels, “‘Champion for Israel’ RFK Jr. Flip-flops on Roger Waters, Holocaust and Antisemitism,” Haaretz, (June 14, 2023).