Tension in Camelot over RFK Jr’s run at the White House

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Washington: Jack Schlossberg had had enough. The only grandson of former President John F. Kennedy, Schlossberg had been watching the presidential campaign of his cousin Robert F. Kennedy Jr with increasing dismay.

To Schlossberg, the quixotic challenge to President Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination was just a “vanity project” that was tarnishing the legacy of his grandfather and their storied family. Just days earlier last month, his conspiracy-minded cousin had suggested that the COVID-19 virus had been engineered to protect Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people.

Caroline Kennedy, the American ambassador to Australia, and her son Jack Schlossberg, 30, visited the Solomon Islands where they re-enacted a heroic rescue swim undertaken by John F Kennedy during World War II.Credit: Instagram

Sitting in a van in Australia, where he was on vacation, Schlossberg sketched out a few bullet points, took out his mobile phone and recorded a harsh condemnation of his cousin on Instagram. “He’s trading in on Camelot, celebrity, conspiracy theories and conflict for personal gain and fame,” Schlossberg said. “I’ve listened to him. I know him. I have no idea why anyone thinks he should be president. What I do know is his candidacy is an embarrassment.” Then he hit the post button.

Schlossberg’s denunciation underscored the turmoil inside what remains of Camelot. Bobby, as the 69-year-old candidate is called, has become a source of deep anguish among his many siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, one that is testing the bonds of what was once known as the royal family of American politics. His relatives by and large do not want him to run, do not support his campaign, disdain his conspiratorial musings and almost universally admire Biden, a longtime friend of the family who keeps a bust of Robert F. Kennedy Sr in the Oval Office.

Yet even as some members of the candidate’s family feel compelled to speak out against his campaign, others find themselves profoundly pained by the airing of domestic discord. They do not share his views on many issues, particularly his strident anti-vaccine stances, these Kennedys say, but they care for him, do not want to see him hurt and do not think it helps to publicly criticise him.

“I love my brother deeply, and while I don’t agree with him on a number of issues, theories, I do not want to knock him,” said Courtney Kennedy Hill, one of the candidate’s sisters. “He has done a lot of good for many, many people,” she added, citing his work as an environmental lawyer who helped clean up the Hudson River and his advocacy for those struggling with drug addiction. “I just don’t want all that to get lost in the maelstrom around his more controversial statements and views.”

Robert Kennedy Jr., announcing his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in Boston in April 2023.Credit: Sophie Park/The New York Times

Never before has the family faced a conundrum quite like this. Through all the tragedies and scandals and campaigns over the years, the traditional Kennedy rule has always been to pull together, to stand by one another no matter what. Family was the rock. Solidarity was the code. But as he polls at around 15 per cent against Biden, Robert F. Kennedy Jr has roiled a family that wants nothing to do with his campaign and telephone lines between Kennedy homes burn with what-to-do agonising.

“It must be painful for them,” said Bob Shrum, who for years was one of the leading advisers to Edward M. Kennedy, the senator and patriarch known as Ted. “He’s been through some struggles himself,” Shrum added of Robert F. Kennedy Jr, “and I think they want to love him. But at the same time, they can’t abide this. It’s very sad at every level.”

Kennedy opted against discussing his relations with his family. “It’s pretty clear that the Times is not going to treat me fairly honestly, so I’m going to decline,” he said in a text message. In a statement to CNN in April shortly before kicking off his campaign, he acknowledged that some relatives do not support him. “I bear them no ill will,” he said. “Families can disagree and still love each other.”

Still, privately he has reached out to some of his relatives to complain about their public comments and engaged in tense discussions about his campaign and platform. Some family members recall pressing him on why he was running and warning him that he was putting his life up for scrutiny in a way that might be personally devastating.

Joseph Biden, Jr. and Edward Kennedy (right) during a Senate hearing with Attorney General Edwin Meese, in Washington on February 4, 1987.Credit: Jose R. Lopez/The New York Times

Kennedy, who was nine when his uncle was assassinated and 14 when his father was killed, struggled with addiction as a young man and was kicked out of private schools and arrested on marijuana and heroin charges more than once. After checking into a treatment facility in 1983, he says he has been clean ever since and has been an anti-drug crusader. Amid reports of infidelity, he separated from his second wife, Mary Richardson Kennedy, who also battled addiction and died by suicide in 2012. He is now married to his third wife, actress Cheryl Hines.

In interviews in recent days, several members of the Kennedy family, some of whom did not want to be named, sounded tortured about the situation. They talked of a brother, cousin and uncle who flashed some of the raw political talent of his famed father, but who has undergone trauma and is headed down a path they do not fully understand.

Last month, he declared that the coronavirus was “targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people” and that “the people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.” He later said he was misinterpreted, writing on Twitter that the disparate effect of the virus “serves as a kind of proof of concept for ethnically targeted bioweapons” but “I do not believe and never implied that the ethnic effect was deliberately engineered.”

That proved too much for several family members. Kerry Kennedy, his sister and president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation, issued a statement calling his remarks “deplorable and untruthful.” Joseph P. Kennedy II, his brother and a former congressman, called them “morally and factually wrong.” Joseph P. Kennedy III, his nephew and another former congressman now serving as Biden’s special envoy to Northern Ireland, posted his own response on Twitter: “I unequivocally condemn what he said.”

Schlossberg filmed his video four days later. “I didn’t have a plan,” he said in an interview from Australia, where he travelled after passing the bar exam to visit his mother, Caroline Kennedy, the US ambassador, and to tour the country before returning home to begin a legal career. “I just wanted to speak out and felt it was the right time.”

While the statements were not coordinated, according to family members, the display of disagreement struck close observers of the Kennedys as a pivotal moment. “The Kennedy family has always tried to keep things within the family,” said Jim Manley, a longtime aide to Edward Kennedy. “The fact that some of the members, some of his cousins, are beginning to speak up publicly, it to me indicates how upset they are with what he’s saying and what he’s doing.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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