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Robert F Kennedy jnr’s election campaign: ‘I think he is going to be president Kennedy’

Despite brushes with conspiracy theories, along with Democratic Party and familial estrangement, JFK’s nephew’s White House run continues to gain traction

It has been a while since a Kennedy campaigned for president in Washington DC. And of course, the iconic banner – “Kennedy for President” in red, white and blue – remains an evocative and even painful sight for the twilight generation of the 1950s and 1960s.

But this iteration of the dynasty is an outsider: the 70-year old son of Robert F Kennedy, estranged from the Democratic Party tradition that holds in reverence his late father and uncle. He is hell-bent on an independent campaign that has been disavowed by many – but not all – of his immediate family members.

Outside the vast curving Hilton hotel in Dupont, itself a city landmark (where Hendrix played, where John Hinckley shot president Ronald Reagan) are mobile screens “exposing Kennedy for who he really is”. But through the haze of negative publicity, his campaign continues to gather pace.

Robert F Kennedy jnr is here to court delegates of the Libertarian Party, a fringe presence in American politics since 1971. Members at this gathering make for a motley, colourful crew. The motto for the convention is “Become Ungovernable”.

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If you can imagine a scenario in which the profile of diehard Grateful Dead fans, Marvel comic devotees, Julian Assange supporters, tech boffins, off-grid mavericks and at least one Violent Femmes fan all somehow end up in a vast ballroom on a sunny afternoon, you have the idea.

There’s also a gentleman wandering around in a loin cloth and another in funeral suit complete with bowler. Maybe they just ended up at the wrong convention, but they seem happy. The bar staff are kept busy. Basically, it’s an anything-goes sort of crowd and Bobby Kennedy jnr is here to try to persuade them that he can be the answer.

To that end, his talk is tailored to meet their ideological needs and although he tests Libertarian patience by taking the stage 45 minutes late, he cuts to the chase, explaining that he is going to talk about the United States constitution and, specifically, the Bill of Rights – the first 10 amendments.

“Originally, [James] Madison felt the bill of rights unnecessary because it was obvious to him that the government couldn’t exert powers that the constitution had not assigned to it,” he begins in the familiar rasping voice.

“But as everyone in this hall knows, governments don’t like to limit themselves. Instead, they are constantly moving to exert and appropriate new powers.”

This earns ironic laughs of approval as Kennedy warms to this theme.

“I am sorry to say again and again throughout history our leaders have failed to respect it. It was the Red Scares in the 1920s, it was Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, it was the Vietnam War protests and civil rights protests in the 1960s, it was the war on drugs in the 1970s, the war on terror after 2001 and most recently it was the Covid pandemic.

“Maybe a brainworm ate that part of my memory but I don’t recall any part of the United States constitution where there is an exemption for pandemics. If the government can take them away at will, then they are really just privileges that are granted or revoked by an authority. Is that the kind of country you want to live in?”

Both the dedicated RFK fans and the Libertarians in the room yell a sustained No to that. It is clear where Kennedy is headed, taking the audience through the suspension of civil liberties laid out in the Amendments during the pandemic. He castigates the Biden administration and tells the crowd that Donald Trump “caved” during the pandemic.

Trump speaks at the convention on Saturday night, where he is greeted by a chorus of repeated boos and heckling.

It is an extension of Kennedy’s manifesto, a hotch-potch that promises government free of corporate corruption, secure borders, an end to the “forever wars”, the protection of reproductive rights, and the prioritisation of the environmental issues that he spent most of his adult life litigating for.

It’s a broad range of proposals, with wide appeal offset against the charges, levelled by many including family members, that Bobby peddles in dangerous conspiracy theories, particularly relating to Covid vaccines and misinformation. His supporters argue that that depiction is part of mainstream media bias.

“Well, I petition on a regular basis for signatures, I roller blade door-to-door to try and get him on the ballot in Virginia,” says John Burk Stringfellow who is here with his wife Erin Leithold to see Kennedy jnr.

“And I encounter so often people saying he is fringe, he is wacko, he is too out there. And I say: what it is specifically you don’t like about him. Any issue? And it is always zero for 19 out of 20. They have this ad hominem aggression towards him without any substance. And I feel if you do research on him you start to like him.”

From Wisconsin, the couple see in Kennedy what the polls show that many Americans under 40 see: an alternative.

“I’ve never really liked the two-party system,” says Leithold.

“I never even knew about independent candidates and I think it is really cool. I grew up in a religious family, they weren’t very political. But my husband is, and we speak a lot about this. I think Robert Kennedy can really actually make a change and help out.”

Over 45 minutes, Kennedy doesn’t specifically allude to his fabled heritage: there are no reminisces of childhood scampering through the Oval Office (there’s a famous photo) or through Camelot itself. He doesn’t need to. That past is evoked in the campaign banners and lapel pins that replicate his uncle and father’s campaigns in the 1960s and in the preppy, outside-of-fashion style of button-down Oxford shirt and skinny ties.

It’s in the inherited physical traits: the steadfast blues eyes and a profile and gait redolent of the departed figures. There’s no escaping the fact that on the stage, when Kennedy speaks and is animated, his faces reveal fleeting glimpses of what his father and uncle might have looked like had they not been assassinated in their 40s: had they reached the age of 70.

So, the presence of RFK jnr in the already overwrought political theatre of 2024 evokes complex feelings in Americans, particularly those wedded to the Democratic values his father enshrined. To some, his candidacy is a grotesque threat to that legacy; to others he is the second coming.

“I was four-years-old when his uncle was killed,” says Joanne Gorlick, from New Jersey, who is wearing a purple T-shirt with the slogan, in the trippy font of a bygone era, “Boomers for Kennedy”.

“But I remember having the feeling that things were going to be good but now they never will be again because he is gone. Then, when Kennedy announced as an Independent last year, all of a sudden it came to me: oh my God, it was just a 60-year hiatus, and there can be good again. And I believe he is important for a number of reasons because he can break the system where both parties are owned by the same corporate interests. And if we get an Independent in, all of a sudden everything is up in the air, and we have a chance to recreate democracy.”

Hours after Kennedy’s speech, a Democratic National Committee statement decried it as a “bizarre and poorly received exercise in narcissism”. A new poll showed more startling numbers for Kennedy: a Marquette Law School Poll showed that in a five-way contest, Trump drew 40 per cent, Biden 37 per cent, Kennedy 17 per cent with Jill Stein and Cornel West, the other Independents, at 3 per cent each.

The Kennedy campaign is still petitioning furiously to get on all state ballots but there is a possibility that he will feature in the proposed CNN presidential candidate debate on June 27th, which would give him his first mass exposure to the electorate. The theoretical debates on whether the votes he draws will hurt Biden or Trump are spinning in every direction. But his believers claim that he is more than simply a chaos candidate.

“I think he can win,” Joanne Gorlick says.

“I think he is going to be president Kennedy. Because half the people hate Trump. Half hate Biden. And both of them have a lot of time to screw things up even worse. Up to now a lot of people didn’t even know Kennedy was running. But now he is finally getting on the ballots, and he is getting his message out and people are going to love his message. They are going to love the possibility of hope.”

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