One of the most vivid memories of my youth is riding the “L” – the nickname of the elevated subway in my native Chicago – and seeing row upon row of commuters looking at the same front page: Senator Robert F Kennedy, sprawled on a floor, his eyes open and staring into the void.
It was June 1968, and Kennedy had been shot in the head by a young Palestinian Jordanian called Sirhan Sirhan, who was outraged by the senator’s support of Israel.
Just the previous April, Kennedy had announced to an African American crowd who had come to hear him speak that Martin Luther King had been shot dead earlier that evening. His words were compassionate and offered hope for the future. And as I stared at the rows of newspapers, I realised that he, too, was dead.
Sirhan Sirhan has admitted, more or less, that he did indeed fire the fatal shot that killed RFK. It is accepted by most people – including the vast majority of the Kennedy family.
But his namesake Robert Kennedy Jr, who was 14 when his father was shot and got to the hospital in time to be with him when he died, is reported to have not accepted this fact. Does not accept it. I’m not sure who he believes did murder his father during his fatal journey through a hotel kitchen, but he does not believe it was the man who was convicted of it.
This kind of thing is pretty normal in the US now. Maybe it always has been. This belief that “They” are in league against “Us”.
There were many at the time and even now, who believe that Bobby Kennedy Jr’s uncle, John F Kennedy, was not assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald but by “dark forces”.
A lot of the 1970s in the US was taken up with the belief that the nation itself was run by some cabal, totally secret – and next door to you.
The end of the 1970s conspiracy thriller Three Days of the Condor shows Robert Redford glancing about the streets of New York, believing that the security forces are out to wipe him out. In The Godfather, when Kay tells Michael Corleone that senators and presidents don’t have men killed, his response is to call her naive.
Nixon and Watergate made many determined to “fight the power”, whoever that might be. However secretive it is.
Now Robert Kennedy Jr wants to follow his uncle and Richard Nixon into the White House. He is running against Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination. One of the planks of his campaign will be that vaccines are a conspiracy cooked up by the Feds and Big Pharma.
Back in the day, Kennedy was a fierce environmentalist, just how we can imagine his father would have been: direct, passionate, all-in, there for the “little guy”. But now he has become a crank. He can be found telling Peter Hotez, the Nobel Prize-nominated infectious disease and vaccine researcher, and Anthony Fauci, the renowned immunologist who served as presidential adviser on Covid, that they know nothing, and that vaccines cause autism.
Kennedy has challenged them both to debate with him. The problem is that to stand up to him and his followers you have to not only be steeped in facts: you have to be steeped in the B.S. too.
You have to know the conspiracy theories; be on top of all of them before you can make sense out of Kennedy and his cohorts.
That is because there is a kind of hybrid out there, a mix of “spirituality” and conspiracy theory. Some call it “conspirituality” and it goes something like this:
The assassination of JFK was a government hit job led by the forces that wanted (you choose): Lyndon Johnson as POTUS; the Vietnam war to continue, or maybe to end. The shooting was ordered by “Reds” in cahoots with the Kremlin; or maybe by a mob boss from my native Chicago whose lover was getting laid by JFK (Kennedy was actually doing this, by the way).
And then there is my favourite theory. That Kennedy (born in May 1917) didn’t really die in Dallas and is still dead but living somewhere, like some Cape Cod Rip Van Winkle.
The spiritual part comes in with the belief that conspiracies are harming the soul of the nation. That uncovering the truth will heal it. Cleanse it.
So what better than the name of Kennedy again in a presidential race? That allure of Camelot restored. A Kennedy to wipe the slate clean.
There is a possibility that RFK Jr might win the Democratic Primary in New Hampshire because Joe Biden might not be on the ballot. Biden wants to break with tradition and push South Carolina forward to become the first Democratic primary. It is a far more racially diverse state, and he wants to set a precedent in which minority voters will have more of a say in early presidential contests. But New Hampshire and Iowa, the traditional early starters, are resisting and if they dig in, the president may simply refuse to run in either of them.
Overall, Kennedy is no threat to Biden – New Hampshire polls show him trailing by 59%. But the movement around Kennedy might be more of a threat. It is a coalition of those Who Do Not Trust; who think it’s all lies. And this coalition embraces the right and the left.
Images from a Kennedy rally show posters of him as a little boy with his dad and his uncle. There are “Kennedy” badges, too, and it is all a big fat throwback to what people imagine was a golden age.
Just as there are those pseudo world war two vets who were born years after it ended who will tell you it was Britain or America’s “finest hour” – while ignoring the views of those who actually fought it and lived through it – there are Gen Xers, millennials and younger who will debate you about the glories of the Kennedy phenomenon and the “promise” of Robert Kennedy Jr.
In other words, there are people out there looking, not for answers, but for “cleansing”. Looking to be led to a “better place”, by people who are not the political usual suspects.
This is the appeal of Donald Trump. Of Boris Johnson, too. And of Robert Kennedy Jr. Conspirituality.