RFK Jr.’s Candidacy and What Might Have Been

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Lance Morrow “Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Candidacy and What Might Have Been”:

When I was a kid in the mid-1950s, I used to play touch football with Robert F. Kennedy, the father, and his crew on a field in Georgetown. I remember one Saturday morning when—despite being conspicuously pregnant—Ethel Kennedy was in the game. She lined up as a wide receiver. Bobby, as usual, was captain and quarterback. Ethel faked right, then cut to the inside, and her husband threw her a perfect spiral. She bobbled it, the ball doing a little dance in midair for a second, and then she dropped it. Bobby cussed her out.

The baby in Ethel’s womb that morning was Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

For me, Bobby Jr. seems to float in the interval between then and now, dislocated in time. His name, as he challenges Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination, arrives as a sort of double take, trailing not-quite-dissipated contrails of the old story: heroism, martyrdom and scandal. There’s the admixture of later gossip about drugs, Kennedy family dysfunction, and, more recently, a tainted obsession with vaccine conspiracies. The long-ago boy is now 69, which America once considered the age of an old man. Dwight Eisenhower was only a year older when he left the White House for retirement in Gettysburg, Pa.

Bobby Jr.’s voice is strained and cracked. He suffers from spasmodic dysphonia, a voice disorder that afflicted his grandmother Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy as well. The condition makes him sound like Margaret Hamilton playing the wicked witch in “The Wizard of Oz.” But one gets used to it. Otherwise he speaks well and uses words with notable intelligence.

There is a touch of his father’s charismatic urgency in the forward drive of his rhetoric. He has the face of a man in late middle age, with grooves like parentheses on either side of the mouth. When he talks, his face looks now and then like Norman Mailer’s (intensity in the eyes, perhaps—an air of prophecy: the Ancient Mariner). His hair doesn’t flop forward, the way his boyish father’s did, but flows straight back from his forehead.

Would I vote for him? I wouldn’t vote for Joe Biden, Kamala Harris or Donald Trump. Mr. Kennedy’s still-unreal candidacy takes sly advantage of this disconsolate process of elimination. Even allowing for the touch of nuttiness, I would give him respectful attention. Right now, the 2024 presidential election is at the stage of what in 1939, after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, they called the Phony War. Over the summer, the reality of 2024 will start to emerge from the mist.

The current disillusion feels familiar. In the 1970s—after assassinations, abdications and Vietnam—a pessimism about the American future descended. Lyndon B. Johnson let his hair grow long over his collar, started smoking cigarettes again, and died at his ranch in Texas. Richard Nixon flew away to bitter exile in California. Jimmy Carter became president, and his one term felt like the middle age of the novelist John Updike’s character Rabbit Angstrom—the time of gasoline lines, oil shortages, Japanese cars and the death of American leadership. Malaise was the word.

In those days, a question would haunt some of us—an old ghost: What if RFK had lived? He could have been elected president in 1968 instead of Nixon. He could have gone on to re-election in 1972. The country might have been different. What would have happened in Vietnam? We used to ask that. There would have been no Watergate (no Ford, no Carter and arguably no Reagan). The “what if” pops up again in 2023 in the context of Bobby Jr.’s candidacy. Some Americans, hearing the name again, momentarily toy with the fantasy of the father’s story resumed in the son. The notion seems idle, unreal. But name recognition—an involuntary reflex—can be powerful.

I think of the 2020s now and then as a surreal extension of the 1960s—as if the 1960s had grown old and corrupt, the baby boom’s great adventure played out at last. These are the ’60s bereft of their naiveté and idealism. The 21st century’s sense of catastrophe is more fantastical, elaborate and paradoxical than the one we knew in the ’60s. The country struggles today with its surreal identity crises and conspiracy theories, the most vivid of them being artificial intelligence, which schemes to supplant the faltering human mind and take over the world.

There’s an Alice-in-Wonderland weirdness about all this: A sense not only of decline but of inverted reality—as if Americans had chosen dementia, compounded by mediocrity, as their preferred lifestyle. Or maybe the 21st century’s spiritual disturbance is mostly a media hysteria, a tremendous metaphysical imposture of the screens.

Bobby Sr., in his brief presidential campaign in spring 1968, united disparate constituencies—blacks and blue-collar whites, George Wallace voters and traditional liberals—in a counterintuitive coalition that just might have worked. Bobby Jr.—the longest of long shots—plays to that memory. The tribal Kennedys have always made their way forward by repeating Jack’s inaugural metaphor, now flickering and a little threadbare: “The torch has passed to a new generation.”

Lance Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of “The Noise of Typewriters: Remembering Journalism.”


  1. Jennifer Lim says

    It seems as if Lance Morrow has fallen in love with himself, speaking of others with disdain. In 2021, he wrote an article on the Golden Age of Stupidity, bemoaning the deaths of JFK and RFK Jr. and the Vietnam War as historic tragedies tied to America’s age of stupidity. That is all talk, along with his skilled use of the English language, and mastery of vocabulary and linguistic imagery. After bemoaning the tragedy inflicted by America’s drawn-out involvement in the Vietnam War (and more recently the Afghanistan War), he then embraces the state of perpetual war as inevitable, and buys into the propaganda, that America has to be perpetually embroiled in foreign wars to destroy demons abroad. When RFK Jr. is running for President, after a life-time career in environmental justice and vaccine safety, with more than a dozen books with which to judge him, then Lance Morrow adopts a stance of disbelief. As a senior fellow in the field of ethics and public policy, it behooves Mr. Morrow to investigate and read at least two of the books that RFK Jr. published on the subject of vaccine safety, “Thimesoral: Let the Science Speak” and “The Real Anthony Fauci”, before he starts repeating online fake news that RFK Jr. is spreading “anti-vaccine propaganda”. I take what RFK Jr. says about Anthony Fauci and big pharma with a grain of salt, because the issues are too large and complex, but he has correctly pointed out that we have problems such as high incidence of autism in American children and the free rein given to vaccine manufacturers, and that is part of his agenda for change.

    On the other hand, RFK Jr. is traveling the United States giving speeches because the fate of America (and the world), and future generations is at stake. Showing a deep knowledge of American history and conversant on foreign policy, he quotes John Quincy Adams that America shall not go abroad seeking demons to destroy. The underlying logic of his stance and interpretation of what national security means, is that we fight so that our children and future generations can live in security and peace (i.e. we fight to live). The inverse logic has been perpetuated by the current administration, which is that Americans who are not wealthy should be raising their children to go to war and become cannon fodder (i.e. we live to fight). This was exemplified by Biden’s knee-jerk and mindless jingoistic rhetoric as a standard political ploy when he ran against Trump in 2020. I would have voted for anyone besides Trump, and all the other Democratic candidates fell away, so Biden was the lesser of two evils.

    Lastly, I want to share my own experience and observations of drug addiction in my own family. I was about 14 or 15 years old when an older cousin (whom we knew was a drug addict) came to our house and decided to take my youngest brother who was 9 or 10 years old for a visit to the local music store. (We could not stop my cousin from coming to our house because his mother was our beloved aunt and he does not have any criminal record). As the oldest child, I felt that it was my duty to watch my younger siblings, especially my brother as he could be considered “at risk” with an uncertain future. When they came back from the music store, I took my brother aside and told him to remove the contents in his pockets. I started questioning him about the contents and found out there was a pencil (and maybe other items) that my cousin had “helped” him take from the music store. I told my brother on no uncertain terms that it should never happen again. (Other steps were taken). Years later, that cousin died from a drug overdose at age 26. My brother grew up and became a successful businessman at age 26, married his college sweetheart and has two kids.

    So RFK Jr. knows why he has to run for the President’s office. During his Memorial Day speech, he told us that he did not want to run for President. However, he did not have to tell us that he understands that the outcome of his choice is between life and death for many Americans and the future of his country. The Democratic Party has become the party of war and censorship, mostly due to lack of moral courage of its leaders. This path is untenable. So instead of bemoaning about the flickering flame on the torch that RFK Jr. is carrying for future generations, Mr. Morrow should be cheering him on. Cynicism may be able to garner a literary award if artfully expressed, but it makes no difference in the lives of many.

  2. I disagree with Lim. Lance Morrow wrote a good piece. Let him say what he wants. I am interested in his perspective. No one is being forced to agree. Readers can disagree if they like.

    I am interested in other persons’ points of view. The short piece on RFK jr. was a good read, it told me of another persons’ perspective.

    There is not just “one” way to do it. I am interested in anyone who thinks for her/himself.

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