RFK Jr. has a lot of explaining to do

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is poised to be a spoiler in the 2024 presidential election. In a poll conducted late last year, he was supported by 22 percent of respondents and a greater number of independent voters than either President Biden or former President Trump. In January, Gallup reported that 52 percent of Americans view him favorably, a higher percentage than either Biden (41 percent) or Trump (42 percent) received.

These results no doubt reflect the popularity of the Kennedy name and dissatisfaction with the likely nominees of the major parties; RFK Jr. has not received the public scrutiny that presidential candidates inevitably get. It’s time to lift the curtain on a campaign based on false, irresponsible and self-contradictory claims.

Kennedy, an environmental lawyer who helped secure a $289 million judgment for a terminally ill groundskeeper against Monsanto in 2018 for using an herbicide linked to cancer, maintains he doesn’t “necessarily believe all the scientists because I can read science myself. That’s what I do for a living.” But he has repeatedly misrepresented scientific studies, ignored evidence that conflicts with his views and endorsed junk “science.”

Kennedy has declared, without evidence, that government officials knew that vaccines cause autism but “knowingly allowed the pharmaceutical industry to poison an entire generation of American children”; vaccines are “the only medical product that is not safety-tested prior to licensure”; chemicals in the water supply are “drugging” children and influencing transgender identity; Wi-Fi and 5G cause cancer; HIV is not the true and only cause of AIDS; more school shootings happened following the widespread use of Prozac and other anti-depressant drugs; Covid vaccines contain microchips to keep track of individuals and are “the deadliest vaccines ever made”; the Covid virus is “targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people and the people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.”

A short list of Kennedy’s irresponsible, fact-starved statements includes: members of a 1976 House of Representatives committee investigating the assassination of his uncle John F. Kennedy found “overwhelming” evidence that the C.I.A. killed the president; a “massive coordinated campaign” by Republicans deprived John Kerry of the presidency in 2004 by getting rid of 350,000 votes cast for him in Ohio; Dr. Anthony Fauci was part of an “historic coup d’état against Western democracy.”

In protesting Covid-related public health mandates, Kennedy said, “Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps to Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did.” Among the many critics of this analogy was Kennedy’s wife, the actress Cheryl Hines, who called it “reprehensible and insensitive.”

On the campaign trail, Kennedy has belied his image as an anti-establishment straight-shooter with a series of have-it-both-ways assertions on hot-button issues, probably to curry favor with voters across the ideological spectrum.

Early on, he stated that anyone who wanted to close the U.S. border with Mexico was “probably a xenophobe and maybe a racist.” More recently, in a conversation that involved Elon Musk, he promised to “try to formulate policies that will seal the border permanently.”

In 2018, Kennedy characterized the National Rifle Association as “a terrorist group.” He has now said “as president, I will respect the Second Amendment.”

Kennedy has said that the United States supports Ukraine “for the right reasons, because we have tremendous compassion for the Ukrainian people and the illegal invasion, the brutality, and also their valor and courage.” He has also asserted that, “We’re there and we’re killing a lot of Ukrainians” as part of an American “strategic grand plan” to depose Vladimir Putin and “destroy any country such as Russia that resists American imperial expansion.” And he has implied that as president he would not provide additional military aid to Ukraine.

After frequently affirming support for a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, Kennedy indicated in an interview at the Iowa State Fair in the summer of 2023 that he would sign a law banning abortions after three months of pregnancy. His campaign quickly released a damage control statement indicating that in a noisy, crowded setting Kennedy had misunderstood the question and reiterating his view that “government has already invaded the lives of private citizens too much.” But a transcript of the interview cast doubt on this explanation:

Question: “Would you sign a federal protection to protect the rights that were in the Roe precedent if you were president?” Answer: “I believe a decision to abort a child should be up to the women during the first three months of life.” Question: “So you would cap it at 15 weeks?” Answer: “Yes.” Question: “Or 21 weeks?” Answer: “Yes, three months.” Question: “So three months, you would sign a federal cap on that?” Answer: “Yes, I would.”

Not surprisingly, members of the Kennedy family are anguished and angry at RFK Jr.’s behavior. Jack Schlossberg, John F. Kennedy’s grandson, said it best: “He’s trading in on Camelot, celebrity, conspiracy theories and conflict for personal gain and fame. I’ve listened to him. I know him. I have no idea why anyone thinks he should be president.”

Glenn C. Altschuler is The Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Emeritus Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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