The first time I saw Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, was in June, 1968, standing in front of his father’s coffin.
I waited in line for 3 hours to pay my respects to his father, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, whose body lay in state inside NYC’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I had campaigned for his father for US Senator in 1964, and again for President in 1968, before RFK was shot in the head and murdered by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles.
When the long, serpentine line shifted just a bit, I could clearly see Senator Kennedy’s coffin, surrounded by six-foot high silver candleholders, each with a flame flickering inside. Directly behind the coffin, hands falling stiffly by his side, was the TV talk-show host Jack Paar, a close friend of the Kennedy family.
As I slowly inched forward, less than 10 feet away stood a boy who looked not more than 14 years old. His facial muscles quivered, fighting back tears; hands clasped tightly in front of his body. The sight of RFK’s son, so fragile and alone, and only five years younger than I, overwhelmed me with grief.
He had just lost his father, his hero and mine, and I worried of what might become of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., following such a terrible trauma. Never for a moment—then, nor years later– did I think he’d lose his mind over vaccines, become a conspiracy nut, and get co-opted by the John Birch Society—an ultra-extremist Right Wing, anti-government group which his father despised and battled for most of his public life.
Never did I imagine that RFK, Jr.’s junk-science and massive public misinformation campaigns over two decades would set back services for autistic children, and put tens of thousands of lives at risk–lives of the very vulnerable people his father worked hard to help.
The depth of RFK’ Jr.’s derangement over vaccines can be seen in last week’s release of a cringe-worthy book for which he wrote the forward, entitled, “The Real Anthony Fauci.” The book is being widely promoted all over social media by the John Birch Society, or “JBS” as the lunatic fringe’s new sanitized logo now bills itself. The Birch Society screams that “Fauci and Bill Gates are using the COVID Pandemic to put humanity under totalitarian rule,” and quote Kennedy as saying they “must be stopped.” Maybe the John Birchers think this is the Kennedy who should be Trump’s running mate in 2024.
Bill Gates, speaking to CNBC this week on the day when COVID deaths in the US surpassed 800,000, told the network that such scurrilous rumors and mountains of intentional misinformation are “keeping many Americans from getting vaccinated against COVID, and delaying the end of the pandemic by doing so.”
For RFK Jr’s part, he founded a bogus public health group called the “Children’s Health Defense,” to purposely sow confusion with the highly respected Children’s Defense Fund headed for years by Dr. Irwin Redliner—one of President Biden’s COVID-19 advisors, and a strong and consistent proponent of the COVID vaccine. But, such sleight-of-hand is nothing new for Kennedy, who has spent the last two decades spreading the scientifically discredited fabrications that vaccines caused autism—most of it after Andrew Wakefield, who first spread the lies linking autism to vaccines, was stripped of his medical license, the Lancet retracted Wakefield’s article, and the British Medical Journal in 2011 denounced Wakefield’s “studies” as an “elaborate fraud.” None of that mattered to RFK, Jr.
This week, The Craig Newmark Center’s Poynter Institute reported that “RFK, Jr. said the COVID-19 vaccine was the deadliest vaccine ever made.” His litany of flat-out falsehoods has earned Kennedy the title of “one of the biggest sources of anti-vaccine rhetoric today,” from the Poynter Institute.
McGill University’s Office of Science & Society is even more specific, citing statistics that Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense front-group, purchased some 54% of the anti-vaccine advertising on Facebook over the past year. In an article entitled the “Anti-Vaccine Propaganda of RFK,Jr,” McGill—one of Canada’s leading Medical university’s—called Kennedy “one of the princes of the anti-vaccine movement, if not its king.”
It’s no wonder than, that RFK, Jr., was welcomed like a conquering hero by anti-vaxxers in Louisiana earlier this month when he testified before the Louisiana House Oversight Committee, opposing a proposal requiring public school students to be vaccinated. Kennedy’s anti-vaccine screed led to the full Louisiana’s House Committee on Health and Welfare rejecting vaccine mandates for public school students by a 13-2 vote.
What makes this damaging, demagogic action by RFK, Jr., especially chilling, and a stab in the heart of his fathers’ legacy of helping underserved communities, is that more than 50% of the public school students in Louisiana are students of color—precisely the demographic with the highest rates of COVID infections, and death. In fact, since the Pandemic began, Louisiana’s public school population of 720,000 students, has decreased by two-percent. White Supremacist groups like the John Birch Society, Q-Anon, or the KKK, could have hardly conducted a more effective campaign of racial genocide—only this time, it’s whitewashed with the Kennedy name attached to it.
Kennedy’s, “scientifically inaccurate, misleading and irresponsible lies,” as the CDC has called his dangerous misuse of the agency’s data, is reinforcing vaccine hesitancy among the poorest populations, which have, historically, had higher rates of death from ALL major diseases, because of poverty, pre-existing conditions, and lack of access to affordable healthcare.
I worked at two public Academic Medical Centers in New York—SUNY Stony Brook Medical Center, and SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn—and our priorities were to improve community health outcomes in our most underserved communities, in the areas of prostate and breast cancer, cardiac disease, HIV/AIDS, high blood pressure & diabetes.
We struggled mightily to build trust–along with clinics, dialysis centers and emergency rooms– among those very communities to save lives with early mammograms, PSA exams, blood pressure tests, and HIV tests. Now, RFK, Jr. and the rabid right-wing groups who have always opposed more funding for health care for the poor and working families, are harming the little progress made in public health, and are costing lives.
RFK, Jr. is destroying the good name his father built, and the respect his Uncles John and Teddy Kennedy earned over decades, in Black, Latino, & Indigenous communities around the country. His crazed crusade linking vaccines to autism, and his outright lies about the COVID vaccine, are poisoning peoples minds, creating a hard-core cadre of unvaccinated human petri dishes in which more mutant viruses can multiply, and disproportionately killing the very populations his father dedicated his life to serving.