We all live in the shadow of death, but the gloom of mortality envelops some lives with a special darkness. President Joe Biden, the pillar of the Democratic Party establishment, is the polar opposite in most ways of his unconventional primary challenger, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Yet the two men share a bond of grief.
In 1972, just weeks after his upset win in the US Senate race in Delaware, Biden lost his first wife and infant daughter in a car accident. In 2015, while serving as vice president, he had to bear an excruciating witness to the brain cancer that consumed his eldest son, Beau. In 1963, when Kennedy was 9, his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. In 1968, when he was 14, his father and namesake, Senator Robert F. Kennedy Sr., was also felled by an assassin. In 2012, Kennedy’s second wife, Mary Richardson Kennedy, whom he was then in the process of divorcing, committed suicide.
These deaths are not just biographical data: They shape the public identity of both Biden and Kennedy. In Biden’s case, his famous ability to form intense friendships across the political divide and to console people in moments of pain is surely rooted in his awareness of the unfair precariousness of existence, which the president likes to evoke with the beautiful phrase “the Irishness of life.”
Biden’s rival—and fellow Irish Catholic—has some of the same gift for translating private grief into public empathy. There’s much to criticize in Kennedy, particularly his role in popularizing anti-vaccination sentiment. Yet to listen to Kennedy talk, it’s impossible not to be struck by his piercing earnestness and gravity. Even at his most absurd, he carries the weight of someone who has been acquainted with suffering.
In a profile in The Atlantic, John Hendrickson reports that “Kennedy maintains a mental list of everyone he’s known who has died. He told me that each morning he spends an hour having a quiet conversation with those people, usually while out hiking alone. He asks the deceased to help him be a good person, a good father, a good writer, a good attorney. He prays for his six children. He’s been doing this for 40 years. The list now holds more than 200 names.”
This anecdote shows Kennedy at his most human, carrying his suffering with a dignity that is difficult not to respect even if one rejects his politics. It also explains his unique appeal. The Kennedy name, with all the connotations of public martyrdom that it carries, still has some talismanic potency, despite all the tabloid gossip that is also part of the family’s legacy.
After Kennedy announced his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on April 19, he started doing surprisingly well, especially considering that he has never held public office. A CNN/SSRS poll of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters showed Kennedy with 20 percent, against Biden’s 60 percent and Marianne Williamson’s 8 percent. On June 16, Axios even suggested that Kennedy had a shot at winning the early primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, which Biden was neglecting because of a decision by the Democratic National Committee to give priority to South Carolina in the new primary calendar.
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We Are Witnessing the First Stages of Civilization’s Collapse
We Are Witnessing the First Stages of Civilization’s Collapse
By the end of June, however, the Kennedy bubble already showed signs of bursting. After an intense round of national media scrutiny, Kennedy’s skepticism of vaccines received a much wider public airing. Suddenly Kennedy was not just someone with a romantic and historic last name who was offering a needed liberal challenge to Biden; he was also someone with many strange, unsupported beliefs about Wi-Fi causing cancer and antidepressants fueling mass shootings.
Kennedy’s openness to crank science came with a political price. By late June, a survey by Saint Anselm College showed him polling at only 9 percent in New Hampshire, against 68 percent for Biden and 8 percent for Williamson.
Whatever the fate of Kennedy’s candidacy, there’s no doubt that the main factor that made him plausible at all was his last name. Journalists often use the shorthand phrase “the Kennedy curse” to describe the family’s long list of tragedies. That’s always been an unhappy expression, since it suggests supernatural causes for what are historical events.
The real Kennedy curse is the hold the Kennedy name has on the public imagination. The power of the name conjures expectations and hopes out of thin air. It also gives believers in the Kennedy cult an excuse to forgive behavior that would otherwise be condemned if committed by someone from another family.
My colleague Joan Walsh wrote a brave piece for The Nation on her role in publishing a 2005 article by Kennedy—carried jointly by Salon and Rolling Stone—which asserted that childhood vaccines contribute to autism. The piece was later retracted by both outlets in 2011. In explaining her decision to publish it, Walsh wrote, “I also fell for the Kennedy magic: I grew up in a family that revered Democratic President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, both murdered by assassins. As I do whenever I meet one of my father’s heroes, I warm up. And Kennedy had become a progressive star in his own right, for his environmental rights legal work with the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association and Riverkeeper.”
Walsh’s piece illuminates how the “Kennedy magic” can so easily serve bad ends. For Americans of a certain generation and political cast, the Kennedys belong not to history but to mythology. Like the Greeks and Trojans whose deeds and deaths were recorded by Homer, the Kennedys are avatars of a lost golden age of heroism and sacrifice. This mythology is bad history, bad politics—and perhaps as unfair to the living Kennedys as to anyone else.
The best thing one can do for a Kennedy is to just treat them as any other citizen. The worst thing one can do is to burden them with the task of not only mourning their dead but also of living up to the impossible expectations that come with murdered legacies.