RFK Jr.: Green hero turned anti-vaccine activist takes on Biden

By Scott Waldman | 05/18/2023 06:59 AM EDT

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. earned a reputation in New York as a green crusader. But that legacy has been clouded by his opposition to vaccines and complicated by a new presidential campaign.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. officially announces his candidacy for president on April 19 in Boston.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. officially announces his candidacy for president on April 19 in Boston. Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was once a hero of the environment in New York.

He helped push a fracking ban. As an environmental lawyer, he spent more than three decades fighting for a cleaner Hudson River. He protected New York City’s reservoir in the Catskills. He pressed for the closure of the Indian Point nuclear plant. He founded an environmental group devoted to water protection that has worked on six continents.

That Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is gone.


The long shot presidential candidate and onetime crusader for environmental protections has transformed into a font of anti-vaccine misinformation and conspiracies. That includes promoting false claims about the assassination of his father, former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and his uncle, President John F. Kennedy.

“It’s hard not to be sad about it,” said Alex Beauchamp, Northeast region director for Food & Water Watch, who was a Kennedy ally during the years long fight to ban fracking in New York.

“You start to have a couple of crazy views, and then, all of a sudden, you’re a full-blown conspiracy theorist,” Beauchamp said. “I do think it changed; I don’t think he was the same 10 years ago.”

Last month, Kennedy officially launched his bid against President Joe Biden in the Democratic primary. Since then, his poll numbers have been surprisingly strong, reaching as high as 21 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight, a media and poll tracking site. That puts him in a similar position to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in his uphill battle against former President Donald Trump on the Republican side.

The Kennedy campaign did not respond to a request for comment. However, in an interview last month with a New York radio station, Kennedy blamed the media for portraying him as “crazy” and said people would be open to his ideas.

“When they see me, I don’t look like the mischaracterizations,” he said. “It may be that people just want something different.”

Kennedy’s environmental work in New York is the type of resume that climate-minded Democrats could embrace — had he not clouded it with his public persona of the last few years.

Kennedy, with his famous lineage and long career of battling and beating polluters, was a regular presence at the New York State Capitol. He’d stand atop its grand staircase looking down at hundreds of cheering activists hanging on to his every word as he railed against fracking, Hudson River pollution and greedy corporations poisoning natural resources.

But over the last decade, Kennedy’s visits to the New York State Capitol became less about environmental causes and more about attacking the safety and efficacy of vaccines. It’s there where he began to split his time as an anti-vaccine activist and as a climate champion. He would spout discredited claims about vaccines causing autism one day, and then the next, he would be back to the Hudson River protections.

By 2015, Kennedy was using his name to host press conferences where he pushed false claims about vaccines harming children who receive meningitis shots. He wasn’t holding forth on the grand Capitol staircase, however, and in June of that year, he crowded reporters into a small basement room off the Capitol with angry parents who claimed vaccines had caused autism in their children, a thoroughly debunked claim.

Kennedy and his supporters shouted at reporters for hiding the “truth” about vaccines. He flipped over a poster board and began writing, in small, barely legible script, formulas that he claimed proved his point that additives in vaccines were harming children.

Kennedy told reporters that vaccines were “making our children dumber and … giving them injuries.”

It was a difficult moment.

However, Kennedy would take that message and expand on it wildly, traveling to other state capitols to fight against similar meningitis vaccine legislation. Within a few years, he would step down from his long-held positions on some of New York’s top environmental groups, Riverkeeper and the Waterkeeper Alliance he founded. In a resignation letter, he said he devoted himself full time to anti-vaccine causes and conspiracies.

“A series of recent events have aligned my thoughts and feelings and given me the clarity to conclude it’s time to move on,” Kennedy wrote when he resigned from Riverkeeper, the group that he had built up since 1984 to become an environmental powerhouse of water protectors around the country.

Kennedy has traced his attacks on vaccines to his work fighting against mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants. He has said that mothers who believed their children had been poisoned by trace mercury amounts in vaccines attended some of his public rallies calling for tighter regulations on coal plant emissions. He listened to their stories and it convinced him that he should also look at the health industry in the same way he viewed the fossil fuel industry.

In some circles, Kennedy has enjoyed renewed popularity during the Covid-19 era, where more people are open to vaccine hesitancy and conspiracies. He has helped raise millions of dollars for the Children’s Health Defense, which traffics vaccine misinformation as well as the “dangers” of internet cell towers and radiation.

He also has called for the release of his father’s killer, Sirhan Sirhan, who he claimed did not murder his father. In a recent radio interview, he said the CIA could have been involved in his uncle’s murder, a long-running and debunked conspiracy theory.

In the first weeks of his presidential campaign, Kennedy has not rejected climate science, but now claims that climate policy is part of an international conspiracy involving Bill Gates and the World Economic Forum. That type of rhetoric fits squarely with the “Great Reset” conspiracy, which holds that governments will exploit the protocols of the Covid-19 era to force “climate lockdowns,” including forcing people to eat bugs instead of meat.

“Climate issues and pollution issues are being exploited by, you know, the World Economic Forum and Bill Gates and all of these big, you know, mega-billionaires, the same way that Covid was exploited, to use it as an excuse to clamp down top-down totalitarian controls on society,” Kennedy recently told radio show host Kim Iversen, who has also trafficked in conspiracy theories around Covid-19 and vaccines.

Some in New York who fought alongside Kennedy for years feel betrayed.

Kennedy waged so many important environmental battles in New York for so many years that the activist community mostly looked the other way when he started to ramp up his anti-scientific screeds against public health, said former state Assemblyman Steven Englebright (D), who chaired the Environmental Conservation Committee. He said the Kennedy name and the long record of success discouraged people from ostracizing their erratic ally at a time when he alternated between climate and anti-vaccine causes.

“I don’t see that man anymore. From what I see, he’s eccentric at best and maybe disturbed,” Englebright said. “He has lost his way in a direction away from science, and the other word for science is facts.”

The new Kennedy is a purveyor of cherry-picked and junk science who claims public health officials act like Nazis, compares Anthony Fauci to Adolf Hitler and invokes Anne Frank when discussing vaccinations. His own family is horrified at what he is doing to harm the public at large and the political legacy he inherited.

“Bobby’s lies and fear-mongering yesterday were both sickening and repulsive,” Kerry Kennedy wrote on Twitter after her brother referenced Anne Frank. “I strongly condemn him for his hateful rhetoric.”

More recently, Kerry Kennedy has made it clear that the family does not support his presidential run.

“I love my brother Bobby, but I do not share or endorse his opinions on many issues, including the Covid pandemic, vaccinations and the role of social media platforms in policing false information,” Kerry Kennedy said in a statement after he launched his campaign.

Some of his former opponents, however, are thrilled at what they see.

Kennedy once told Marc Morano, a conservative activist who runs a prominent climate denial blog, that those who reject climate science should be held criminally liable and that polluters should be thrown in jail. Now, Morano says, all is forgiven because Kennedy is “undergoing a genuine transformation over his views on the climate agenda.”

He considers the new Kennedy an ally in his fight to sow doubt and distrust around climate science, vaccine research and Covid-19 public health measures.

“I have received some flak from my fellow climate skeptics for being so welcoming and forgiving to RFK Jr., given his hostile history to anyone opposing the climate ‘consensus,’ but I truly believe we are at a pivotal point in U.S. history where we need to realign coalitions to oppose Covid and climate coercion,” he said.