Robert F. Kennedy Jr​ was nine years old on 22 November 1963 when his mother told him that ‘a bad man shot Uncle Jack.’ He was fourteen, asleep at boarding school, when his father was assassinated at a hotel in Los Angeles. He became used to the sound of people weeping everywhere he went, no matter what he did. He looked so much like his father that ‘even fifty years after his death, people cry when they see my face.’ On aeroplanes he could expect to be upgraded, or at least to have ‘flight attendants smuggle me first-class meals in coach’. In restaurants, ‘waiters refuse to give me a cheque. Even toll collectors on highways, who will never see me again, refuse to take my money.’ They often tell him what he already knows: ‘Robert F. Kennedy was the greatest president that America never had.’ In his memoir, American Values: Lessons I Learned from My Family (2018), RFK Jr remembers the way he felt just a few months before his father was killed, when Lyndon Johnson announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election in 1968, clearing the path for RFK to ‘reclaim the throne in memory of his brother’. Once again there was going to be a Kennedy in the White House.

‘We’re going to win,’ I said to myself for the first time. ‘The war will be over in January. Our soldiers are coming home. Instead of building million-dollar bombers, our country will spend that money constructing schools and health centres and rebuilding our cities.’ All the things I had heard my father talk about were about to come true. He would restore America’s moral standing, revitalise the cities and make the poor a part of our democracy. Suddenly I believed it was all possible – and so did a lot of other people.

All of which is the reason – RFK Jr now believes – the CIA had him killed. In his retelling of American history, the Kennedy family has been locked into an intergenerational war with the agency almost since its founding: it is the ‘dark force infiltrating American politics and business, unseen by the public and out of reach of democracy and the justice system’, an ‘enemy within’ that poses a ‘greater threat to our country than any foreign enemy’, all the more insidious because its agents look and sound like ordinary Americans, coaching Little League, shopping at Target. He thinks that President Kennedy died because he was too much his own man, refusing to do the agency’s bidding in Cuba and East Asia. ‘The CIA’s murder of my uncle was a successful coup d’état from which our democracy has never recovered.’ And since his father was on to them – RFK Jr claims that the ‘first thing he was going to do’ as president was ‘to remove the clandestine services from the CIA and make the CIA what it was supposed to be, which was an intelligence gathering organisation’ – they had to get rid of him too, ushering in the Nixon presidency and all our woe.

As far as Kennedy assassinations go, the murder of RFK has always seemed relatively straightforward. More than seventy people – hotel staff, campaign staff, supporters, journalists, ineffectual security guards, the editor of the Paris Review – were in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel with Sirhan Sirhan when he shot RFK with a .22 calibre revolver. (Eyes were on him because he first yelled: ‘Kennedy, you son of a bitch!’) It was the first anniversary of the Six-Day War and Sirhan, a Palestinian refugee, later confessed that he’d become ‘enraged at the gloating at which the Jewish community in Los Angeles was carrying on in celebration of that victory over the Arabs’. RFK had made a campaign promise to provide the Israeli military with fighter jets, ‘instruments of death and destruction against my people. I am not going to accept that, and never will I accept or acquiesce to it.’ RFK Jr thinks that Sirhan might have attempted to shoot his father, but the bullet that actually killed him was fired by a ‘CIA asset’ hiding in the crowd. Another theory is that Sirhan Sirhan really did kill his father, but that he had been brainwashed by the CIA into doing it. In any case, RFK Jr thinks that the agency has only grown more vicious, ‘metastasised like a cancer, to threaten the very democracy and national security that it was commissioned to safeguard’. He blames the CIA for the Russian invasion of Ukraine and suggests (in his book The Wuhan Cover-Up) that the CIA is part of the cartel responsible for the spread of Covid-19.

RFK Jr doesn’t say when he figured all this out. It’s as though he’s always known. After his father died, he became an alcoholic and, for many years, a heroin addict. (He was also, his biographer Jerry Oppenheimer suggests, a sex addict who sometimes preyed on women; RFK Jr himself has written that his ‘greatest defect’ is his possession by ‘lust demons’.) A neurological disorder affects his voice – he can’t talk without sounding like he’s choking. ‘I have cognitive problems, clearly,’ he said under oath twelve years ago, suggesting that the cause was probably a brain-eating parasite. But he didn’t give up hope that he might one day run for president: ‘to pick up the flag’ where his father dropped it. He’s never run for political office before. For much of his career he was an environmental lawyer, though he is quick to assure voters that he doesn’t buy into the ‘climate change orthodoxy’, which he says is a plot to curtail civil liberties. For the last few years he’s run an anti-vaccine disinformation group called Children’s Health Defence – its main claim to fame is having caused a deadly Samoan measles epidemic in 2019. When the coronavirus pandemic began, he must have realised his moment had come. He created a podcast and took to social media. ‘Covid-19 is targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people,’ he claimed. ‘The people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.’ Vaccines were causing autism; tap water was making kids transgender. The National Institutes of Health, the Gates Foundation, Google, the New York Times, the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine were all deliberately derailing access to life-saving drugs, and were working to prolong the pandemic in order to impose vaccines on a captive population. It was hard to keep up with his many claims, each more batshit than the next, though many of them are helpfully compiled in his book The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health (2021).

Sometime after RFK Jr stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and insisted that American anti-vaxxers were more imperilled than Holocaust victims – ‘even in Hitler’s Germany you could cross the Alps into Switzerland. You could hide in an attic, like Anne Frank did’ – Republican megadonors encouraged him to run against Biden in the Democratic primary and put more than $25 million into his SuperPac. There was a rumour that Donald Trump, in thrall to Camelot glamour, became so enamoured of a ‘Trump-Kennedy’ bumper sticker that he asked RFK Jr to be his running mate; RFK Jr says that the Trump team offered him the role, which Trump has denied. He’s now running as a third-party candidate; his billionaire running mate, the ex-wife of a Google co-founder, seems to be content to bankroll his campaign until the end. Democrats still haven’t recovered from the 2000 election, when nice lefty pro-seatbelt Ralph Nader won 97,488 votes in Florida, which Al Gore lost by 537 votes. RFK Jr is now polling around 10 per cent – much better than Nader, who took less than 3 per cent of the vote – though at the moment pollsters can’t agree on which candidate he hurts more. Biden is trying not to lose votes to RFK Jr by making campaign advertisements featuring the many Kennedys who are endorsing him: Chris Kennedy, RFK Jr’s brother, calls Biden ‘the RFK of his generation’. For his part, Trump has been calling RFK Jr a ‘radical left lunatic’ and a ‘fake anti-vaxxer’ and is trying to cut into his base by promising that ‘from day one’ he’ll cut federal funding for schools with vaccine mandates.

Which Americans find RFK Jr most appealing? He has a strong claim on the conspiracists, the 16 per cent of Americans who agree with the statement that ‘the government, media and financial worlds in the US are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping paedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.’ He also hopes to capture independents – by far the largest voting bloc in the country (about 49 per cent of the electorate) – who don’t feel they have a home in either of the major parties and aren’t wild about Trump or Biden. RFK Jr is pro-organised labour, hard to pin down on abortion, pro-Putin, and claims to be the most pro-Israel candidate in the race (he’s said that the Palestinians are ‘the most pampered people by international aid organisations in the history of the world’). He’s in favour of a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the wealthy, the legalisation of marijuana and is opposed to gun control.

But mainly he’s counting on the multitudes who’ve always loved his family to come out for him. Norman Mailer thought that the Kennedys ‘seemed magical because they were a little better than they should have been, and so gave promise of making America a little better than it ought to be’. But they weren’t, and they don’t.

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