Kennedy (pictured) doesn’t have to win to play spoiler for Biden, he just has to make things interesting enough. That said, as history has shown, winning is certainly not out of the question. Photo credit: AP/Virginia Mayo
For years after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy a yellowing newspaper report from what I believe was the Toronto Star hung in my brother’s room. Long after he went off to college and even years after my grandparents had moved into the home as tenants, that clipping stayed up, fascinating my young mind and cultivating a curiosity I formed for the Kennedy family and eventually for American politics.
My brother and I have exchanged books, stories, and anecdotes about the Kennedy brothers over the years, sharing one of our few areas of political agreement. In hindsight, both of us believe Bobby Kennedy would have won the presidency in 1968 if he had not been gunned down.
At the time, Kennedy, the Senator from New York, also oversaw a family of eleven children with his wife Ethel. The oldest of the children, Robert Francis Kennedy Jr., was 14 at the time of his dad’s murder. Today, at age 69, RFK Jr. stands as a candidate for the Democratic nomination, challenging the incumbent, Joseph R. Biden. Not many give him much chance, but the possibility of him creating mischief for the President should not be underestimated.
RFK Jr. holds no overriding qualifications for the presidency, unlike many of the Kennedy descendants. His greater achievements seem to be as an activist questioning the efficacy of many childhood vaccines and more recently, the COVID-19 shot. He also gained notoriety leading protests as a climate change advocate. Otherwise, the younger Kennedy has been on the sidelines hurling charges at officeholders and drawing attention to the issues that most interest him.
Trading on his last name, he gained access, used influence, and squeezed out donations to further grease the skids of his causes. For the most part, those following American politics would probably characterize Kennedy junior as a bit of a “wannabe”, a guy looking for validation as an independent individual, and a young man who suffered terrible trauma as a youth and probably wanted to find purpose after losing the most important person in his life as his adolescence dawned.
To apply these conclusions alone shortchanges the reality of American politics. History tells us that long-shot candidates can win and there have been two in the last half-century.
As the media ignores Kennedy today, so too they paid little to no attention to Jimmy Carter when he campaigned in 1975 prior to the 1976 election. The dominant press loves their preferred candidates and RFK Jr.’s Uncle Teddy, former Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, or Senator Muskie of Maine would have drawn interest. Carter seemed fringe, too religious, and far too southern for the tastes of the intellectual elite dominating the fourth estate in the seventies. Nonetheless, Carter rose above this avoidance, won some early states, and became a fascination unto himself, eventually defeating the incumbent president of the United States.
Since then, there have been stories of humble beginnings like Reagan or Clinton, but in 2015, once again the media chose to do their own vetting and decided that Donald Trump was not a legitimate candidate. They pulled a tiger by the tail and history gave us a story no one in the press would have predicted just a year or two before news anchors had to report Trump’s victory through shocked grimaces, having dismissed the New York businessman out of hand for two years. Could young Bobby Kennedy serve as a catalyst for another political shocker? Let’s examine the record.
Kennedy’s route to the nomination looks daunting. Taking on a sitting president for his party’s nomination is undeniably bold. In recent polling, he scores about 20 per cent versus Biden’s 60 per cent. The gap looks wide, but considering the situation, Kennedy scores enough support to make the Biden campaign nervous. A president does not have to be defeated to look vulnerable.
When Eugene McCarthy, an insurgent candidate in 1968 scored 42 per cent versus President Johnson’s 50 per cent in the New Hampshire primary, Johnson stood down for another term. Johnson faced the withering stress of the Vietnam War and its subsequent protests, the lengthy Civil Rights battles and riots that raged across the nation’s cities, and his own unreliable health that would eventually put him in the grave at the age of 64.
How does the dominant media dismiss Kennedy when President Biden faces crises that loom, including the lengthy investigation of his son Hunter and other family members, the war in Ukraine, China’s huffing over Taiwan, and questions about his health, in particular, cognitive decline?
Many in the press will claim Vice-President Kamala Harris and other governors stand ready to enter if Biden falters, but as Douglas MacKinnon, a former official in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, points out in an article for The Hill, quoting Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch: the U.S. may “have experienced the greatest intrusions on civil liberties in the peacetime history of this country….Executive officials across the country issued emergency decrees on a breathtaking scale. Governors and local leaders imposed lockdown orders forcing people to remain home. They shuttered businesses and schools, public and private. They closed churches even as they allowed casinos and other favored businesses to carry on. They threatened violators not just with civil penalties but with criminal sanctions too.”
While the dominant media runs interference for President Biden, they wear blinders to the fact that Kennedy dared to question lockdowns, school closures, and mandated vaccinations in different spheres of labour. It may be easy for many on the progressive side to dismiss these concerns, but a correct reading of the record would remind people that the Left has traditionally opposed overreaching authority. For many, anything that opposed or embarrassed President Trump took on a life of its own, including the COVID regime.
As a classic liberal, Kennedy did not buy into the hype. This could propel him to significant support in communities outside the Washington bubble where small businessmen, traditionally Democratic voters, and many union members who experienced the heavy hand of the government live and have their being.
The same could be said of efforts in Ukraine. Whereas many Democrats have displayed reluctant support for foreign wars or involvement, suddenly the Party has become neoconservative in outlook. Could this be tied to the discredited theory that Donald Trump colluded with the Russians to win the 2016 election? Kennedy remains unconvinced about American involvement in Ukraine, voicing this on another non-traditional media platform earlier in May. During this interview, another plank of Kennedy’s platform became clear. He seeks the truth and speaks the truth. Like his father, this quaint practice, largely having disappeared from political life, remains his calling card. Admiringly, RFK Jr. believes in America enough that he thinks finding the truth, telling the truth, and valuing the truth in public conversations and in private negotiations matters.
Joe Biden may survive this primary challenge and go on to be the nominee in 2024, but Kennedy’s dogged determination to bring long-neglected issues to the forefront will bloody him. His father’s presence helped drive LBJ from the race in 1968; his Uncle Ted’s campaign in 1980 laid the groundwork for Carter’s landslide loss to Reagan. In 2024, another Kennedy prepares to pull the party back to its roots, hold honest conversations, and surprise a complacent media lulled into believing that elites know best. If that comes to full fruition, Joe Biden may not be the last, but the latest president to suffer the consequences of a Kennedy crusade.
Dave Redekop is a retired elementary resource teacher who now works part-time at the St. Catharines Courthouse as a Registrar. He has worked on political campaigns since high school and attended university in South Carolina for five years, where he earned a Master’s in American History with a specialization in Civil Rights. Dave loves reading biographies.