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The Crusader

The Political Rise of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.


Robert F. Kennedy Jr. stretches out his legs in the limousine. After speaking to a bursting auditorium at the University of St. Francis in Joliet for more than an hour, a speech during which he paused for not even a moment, he responded to the crowd's questions with lengthy and detailed answers and then carried out an impromptu book signing. He didn't duck out until the last person in the winding line got what he'd been waiting for, Kennedy's signature on a piece of paper and a snapshot with a camera phone.

Bobby, as he prefers to be called, came to the university to talk about Saint Francis of Assisi: A Life of Joy, a children's book he wrote and published earlier this year. With voice slightly strained at first due to his spasmodic dysphonia, a voice disorder caused by involuntary movements of muscles in the voice box, his speech smoothed as he settled into a rhythm. Although the address began with words of admiration about the patron saint of animals, it quickly evolved into an all-encompassing political oration that centered on President George W. Bush. With emphatic hand gestures and a commanding tone, he decried the president as being the greatest threat to the environment and rattled off statistic after statistic to support his argument. In the barrage, he also attacked the media for not doing its job informing the public and attacked corporate interests for eroding away at the citizens' ways of life.

Now, sitting in the limo, well after 9 p.m. and a day of traveling, Bobby seems tired, but still possessed with and angry about the ideas he spoke of in his speech. With cinnamon gum popping in his mouth, his words are fiery.

"I think this White House has done huge damage to our democracy and to the environment," he says. "A lot of it is irreparable. The mountaintop mining is an issue--you will never be able to put back the mountains that have been cut down in the Appalachia or the 1,200 miles of rivers that have been buried as a result of this administration's policies. The source of my optimism is my faith that if the American people knew what was going on they would be as outraged and as indignant as I am and that they would vote rationally."

For those who'd come that night expecting to hear a quaint speech solely on Saint Francis of Assisi by the son of Robert F. Kennedy, it might have been a surprise to hear Bobby dive into into breathless, impassioned and political rhetoric. But not too much of a surprise. Not only does the 51-year-old look astonishingly like his father, he speaks with a similar conviction.

"[Bobby's driven by] an innate sense of justice and a firm belief in democracy," says Steve Fleischli, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance, an umbrella organization that unites grassroots organizations around the globe to champion clean water and protect communities, where Kennedy is founder and president.

Although the night's speech didn't overtly revolve around Francis, the saint has so obviously been one of Bobby's most influential teachers--his role model, he says. His middle name has been a ubiquitous reminder of a bond with the celebrated saint, who has been a guide in service, an inspiration through challenges and a messenger in conveying a respect for the environment throughout his life.

"My first memory--I was 1-year-old--is of sitting below a statue of Saint Francis with my father's black Lab, Charcoal, in the garden of the Georgetown home where I was born," Bobby writes in Saint Francis of Assisi. "The next year we moved to Hickory Hill in the farm country of northern Virginia. Franciscan iconography decorated our home, and the garden bristled with shrines and statuary celebrating Francis and his friars. As a born animal lover and the saint's namesake, I felt a special affinity for Francis. My bedroom walls sported more than 40 framed pictures portraying events from his life. My mother and father read us stories of the 'little flowers'--the followers of Saint Francis, whose devotion to God and His creation gave them a special relationship with the animals. Theirs were the primary virtues--courage, sacrifice, generosity, and love for the poor--that my parents sought to instill in their 11 children. I read every book I could about these noble men who embraced humility and poverty, served the vulnerable and sick, gave their lives joyfully in martyrdom, and saw every hardship as a gift from God."

Bobby, who continues to embrace Francis in adulthood--every night he and his wife and children recite the saint's prayer--seems to wonder if tonight's "little flowers" at the University of St. Francis were surprised by his speech, saying it was hard for him to gauge their reaction. With the intermittent applauses, the murmurs that he's like his dad and the crowd that gathered afterward, signs indicated the flowers liked it.

"Saint Francis was really a revolutionary, but he was quiet and humble so the church tolerated him," Kennedy says in the limo. He himself has, without doubt, revolutionized environmental activism in the United States, and while not quiet at the podium or in the courtroom, he is undeniably modest, so much so he won't even say of what in his career he's most proud. ("I don't know," he says anxiously after pausing for a long time. "You'd have to ask someone else.") This comes from someone who in his career has been assistant district attorney of

New York City, has successfully negotiated treaties protecting the homelands of indigenous tribes in Latin America and Canada, has been credited with leading the fight for New York City's watershed agreement--now regarded as an international model in stakeholder consensus negotiations and sustainable development--has successfully prosecuted governments and companies for pollution and has published five books, with topics ranging from falconry to environmental protection to the life of Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr.

Though exceedingly humble, Kennedy emanates confidence. Wearing a white shirt and a narrow blue tie, which looks to be embroidered with fish, he doesn't break eye contact whatsoever. He goes on to describe how Saint Francis was reacting to fundamentalism of his time. "Christian fundamentalism, the burning of the library in Alexandria in the year 391, was the beginning of the Dark Ages," Bobby says. "They were trying to destroy science, destroy mathematics, destroy cartography and destroy knowledge, so that theologians would be able to control what people believed and the flow of information. The fundamentalist's interpretation of the Bible is really the enemy of religion, and Christ understood that. Christ was constantly condemning the fundamentalists of his own time, who were the Pharisees and the Sadducees, for having burdens for other men to carry. That's one of his central messages. Francis pointed this out--the way that we get close to Christ is through imitating what he did, by helping others, by being kind to the poor, by being open minded and tolerant, not by looking for a set of rules from the Bible. Many historians credit Francis with bringing an end to the Dark Ages because he told people you don't need this hierarchy in the church. The Renaissance leaders, like Dante, were Franciscans and Franciscan followers.

"That has a lot of messages for us today because today the biggest threat to civilization is religious fundamentalism, both the Christian right in our country trying to destroy science and impose this kind of know-nothing-ism and a theological state and the Islamic fundamentalism," Kennedy continues. "Both of them are forms of fascism. They're more similar to each other than they are to anything else. They both want to subjugate women, impose their own will on every aspect of culture and dominate our religious and political freedom. The central message Saint Francis has for us is that we have to fight this, that religious fundamentalism is not about religion--it's the end of religion. The central purpose of religion is the search for existential truths. What fundamentalism does is it ends that search, and it tells you, here's all the truth and the truth is in this text and the way I interpret it. It allows charismatic leaders to dominate and enslave rather than to liberate the human mind." He pauses for a moment and then smiles. "That's why I was glad to talk out there."

The third oldest of Robert and Ethel Kennedy's 11 children, Bobby says he's always been captivated by nature. In The Riverkeepers, a book he co-authored with John Cronin, there's an autobiographical chapter written by Kennedy. In it he writes his mother's family, the Skakels, "a clan of unruly Republican outdoorsmen, might provide a genetic antecedent to my predispositions."

"I was interested in the outdoors from when I was very little and spent all of my free time outside hunting and fishing, collecting insects and salamanders," Bobby says. "When I was nine," he writes in The Riverkeepers, "my tiergarten included raccoons, possums, squirrels, mice and rats and various reptiles and amphibians. I spent my monthly allowance on the 2,000 crickets needed to feed my lizards, which were housed in the aquariums that lined the bookshelves in my bedroom.

A giant leopard tortoise wandered the rooms of Hickory Hill. I had captured it in Kenya's northern frontier in 1963 during a safari with my cousin Bobby Shriver and his father, Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, and brought it home in a suitcase under diplomatic protection."

Robert Kennedy encouraged his children to love and respect nature. Almost every family vacation involved camping, and they did kayaking and paddling on all the great Western rivers and a lot of the Eastern white-water rivers, Bobby says. Early on, however, he realized how pollution could put the environment in peril.

"When I was 7-years-old, I decided to write a book about pollution and interviewed Stewart Udall, who was then secretary of the interior," Bobby recalls. "There was actually an item in Time magazine announcing that I was doing a book on the environment, but I never actually got around to writing it until I was much older and finally did The Riverkeepers." When I mention how most 7-year-olds aren't thinking about writing books about the environment, he pauses to ponder and then says, "You know I think I always saw it as a theft--that the polluters were stealing something that belongs to all of us."

For most of his life Bobby has been a licensed master falconer, an interest that began when he read T. H. White's The Once and Future King. "It was about Camelot, and my uncle was in the White House when I read it," he says. "White was also a great falconer, and he had a chapter on falconry. When I read that, I knew I wanted to do that. As it turns out, there was a well-known falconer who actually lived very close to my house in Virginia, and my father knew about him because he worked for the Defense Department. The State Department often used him to entertain visiting Arab dignitaries. So I met him and apprenticed under him, and that became a big part of my life."

When asked what growing up in a house of 11 children was like, Kennedy says, "Let me put it this way, there was lots of fighting. There was a team spirit in our house, but there was a lot of competition. We're a big Irish Catholic family, and there were lots of fights, but it was a healthy, wholesome environment. There were friendly sports. Competition of all kinds was part of our lives."

By dinnertime, all the children were expected to have hair combed, fingernails clean and arrive at the table on time, enforced by Ethel, who Bobby writes was a "strict disciplinarian." Robert would always come home for dinner and then go back to his office at the Justice Department afterward.

"At our dinner table we had to memorize poetry and recite it, and we had to do current events every night," Bobby says. "All the kids did three current events. We would memorize biographies, usually about a famous American, and deliver it as a speech at the dinner table. Then my father would talk about what he was doing, and then he would tell us stories about history, mainly military history. He was a very good military historian and would talk about battles like Fredericksburg,

Gettysburg, Bunker Hill or the Battle of New Orleans or the sea battles with the Constitution, John Paul Jones--all of those stories we heard at the dinner table."

"My father, whose devotion rivaled my mother's, read us the Bible at night," Bobby writes in The Riverkeepers. "His devotion to country came a close second. We knew every patriotic hymn and the fight songs for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines as well as Harvard and Notre Dame, and belted them out in the car rides to and from church in convertibles and station wagons overflowing with dogs and children. Whining was forbidden, toughness admired. 'He's got guts' was my father's greatest compliment. We were admonished with 'Kennedys don't quit' or 'Kennedys never give up'?Both parents always reminded us that this country has been good to our family and that we therefore owed it a reciprocal debt. They frequently quoted Saint Paul's admonition, 'to whom much is given, much is expected.'"

In 1968, when Bobby was 14 and at Georgetown Preparatory School, his father was assassinated. Robert Kennedy, campaigning for president, had just won the California primary and addressed his supporters when he was shot by Sirhan Sirhan. Bobby, along with several of the other children, flew to Los Angeles on Vice President Hubert Humphrey's airplane, reaching the hospital in time to be with their father and say goodbye. Today Bobby doesn't dwell on the difficulties of having both a father and uncle assassinated.

"There are kids who lose both their parents to gunfire every single day in the South Bronx and in Oakland," he said in a 2004 interview with CBS News. "And they don't have big families and support systems and people who love them. And every single member of my family had that."

After his father's death, Bobby "began to take a greater interest in the issues of my father's crusade: civil rights, the cities, the Cold War, and the war in Vietnam," he writes in The Riverkeepers. "I felt some obligation to pick up the flag where he'd dropped it."

But during the rest of his teens and through his 20s, there were challenges--the most prominent being drugs. Kennedy followed his father's path through Harvard and then the University of Virginia Law School. After graduating he went to work for the New York City district attorney's office, but drugs continued to tighten their control over his life.

"Soon after my father's death I made a series of choices involving drugs that started me down a road from which I had a struggle to return," Bobby writes in The Riverkeepers. "Addiction is a progressive malady. It gets worse with time. Like many other addicts, I was functional while using and able to put down drugs for long periods of time, months and even years, but I always went back."

Then, in 1983, while Kennedy was on a plane headed to South Dakota, where he planned to get treatment, he overdosed. When the plane landed, police arrested him for possessing a small amount of heroin.

"Part of the process of recovery from addiction is focusing on your own conduct and taking responsibility for that conduct ? Following my arrest and during my early recovery, I began to rethink my life," writes Bobby, who has been clean and sober since then. Sadly, as Bobby recovered, his brother David died from a drug overdose in 1984 (another brother Michael died in a skiing accident in 1997).

In a sentence that consisted of community service, Bobby ended up volunteering for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), where today he serves as senior attorney. Through NRDC he met and began working with the Hudson River Fishermen and its Riverkeeper, John Cronin, co-author of The Riverkeepers.

"When I went to go work for the fishermen when I was 29-years-old, it became clear to me that [the environment] was a civil rights issue and a human rights issue, that these were people, the Hudson River Fishermen, who had lost their jobs because of pollution," Kennedy says. "They had lost livelihoods they loved because a big corporation had been able to bully them in the political process. These communities that were so important to our democracy were being destroyed. Fishing and farming really defined American democracy. They were the first occupations, and both of them were being destroyed by large corporations, which had the power to override the interests of local communities. From the beginning I recognized that it was an issue about democracy as well as good health."

"I believe there's no more critical civil rights issue than environmental protection," Kennedy said in 2003 interview with E: The Environmental Magazine. "If you look at environmental degradation, access to public lands, toxic waste--all of those burdens fall heaviest on the shoulders of the poor and minorities in this country. Four out of every five toxic waste dumps in America are in a black neighborhood, and probably the biggest health care crisis we have is the 44 percent of African-American youth who suffer the effects of lead poisoning."

Especially in the early years, when the Fishermen had less prominence and little money, Bobby was willing to literally wade into the trenches and be involved on all levels to bring polluters to justice. In regions with water so polluted it was toxic, he walked with waders to inspect every square foot of waterways, scuba dived in a wet suit to collect samples, sat in a lawn chair to monitor factory and sewer plant outfalls, interviewed neighbors and factory workers, took photographs, meticulously combed over archives and even climbed onto a factory roof one night to check emissions.

"When I seined the Quassaic in August," Bobby writes in The Riverkeepers, "I noticed so many pipes and drains emptying into the mouth that I wondered that there was anything alive in this part of the creek. Among the fish I found long strings of toilet paper and what we euphemistically called 'brown trout' or 'river pickles': human fecal material. After a short time cuts on my hand began to fester."

It wasn't long before the thorough and arduous work led to lawsuits, which led to settlements, which began to initiate reform. Bobby, who then had no training in environmental law, submerged himself in the work and took on the tasks at every level--except the public side. Because of his name and background, which he didn't want to distract from the cause, he didn't appear at press conferences or town hall meetings the first several years. Over time, however, as the Hudson River grew cleaner, Bobby grew more comfortable with being in the public eye.

Today the Hudson, more ecologically diverse and cleaner than it has ever been in the industrial era, is only one indicator of the impact Kennedy has made in the environmental world. He's argued cases to expand citizen access to shorelines, sued sewage treatment plants to comply with the Clean Water Act and continues to work as chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance. He's also a clinical professor and supervising attorney at the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic at Pace University School of Law in New York, where he helps second and third year students bring cases to trial.

"[Bobby's] had a hand in so many successes over the last 20 years," says Steve Fleischli, who admits it can be challenging trying to keep up with Kennedy. "For example, he helped save the Clean Water Act from Newt Gingrich. He helped to permanently protect New York's drinking water supply. He has advised everyone from presidents to paupers on environmental issues, and a lot of that advice has resulted in success around the globe. I'd like to think that the Waterkeeper Alliance is part of it. He has helped create and inspire 143 grassroots organizations around the globe. Every success that each program has is in part because of him. He is the hardest working person I have ever met, and I have known a lot of hard working people. I grew up in Nebraska and consider that a pretty hard working place."

Fleischli describes Kennedy as "the leader" within the environmental community. "He is one of very few people in this movement who has the charisma, strength and intelligence to motivate people from all walks of life and to remind us that we all have an important opportunity to contribute." In the more than six years Fleischli has known Bobby, he says he's never seen him intimidated. "He tackles everything with vigor. If he sees an injustice, he will speak out no matter how powerful the opposition. Fear isn't in his vocabulary. Even when he took on the U.S. military in Vieques (in 2001 by protesting the bombing, which was causing high cancer rates and infant mortality rates on the island) for which he was jailed for 30 days, he never hesitated. He knew it was the right thing to do."

Bobby says he's usually working on about 40 legal cases at any one time. When he's not working on matters of the law, Bush's presidency has made Kennedy become more overtly political in speaking and writing. His 2004 book, Crimes Against Nature, assaults the current administration. He travels to speak about the issues about three or four days a week, he says, and often campaigns for politicians.

With Bobby's ever-increasing presence, the speeches, the books, the articles he writes for major magazines and newspapers, the radio show he co-hosts on Air America, Ring of Fire, the recent Fox News special on global warming he worked on, many wonder, is he also campaigning for himself? He has admitted an interest in politics, but downplays it, saying he would if he didn't have young children (his six children range from age 4 to 21; the oldest two are from his first marriage, the others from his current marriage to Mary Richardson Kennedy). He publicly thought about running for New York attorney general in 2006, but decided against it earlier this year.

"Well, I think he hears it," says David Bender, a political activist and longtime friend of Bobby's, about people constantly telling Bobby to run. "I think he's given it real consideration. I can't necessarily say how it affects him. I can say how I feel about it, which is he's more effective than almost any member of Congress, any individual House member and most Senators because of his ability to move the debate on an issue, raise people's awareness and get people motivated on things like global warming and taking care of our rivers and ecosystems. It's hard to point to any elected official, short of a president, who's been able to have that kind of impact. I joke with him that he's in many ways the president of the environment. He's been able to make that issue himself. Now, having said that, as his friend, my advice to him is not to give him all the reasons why he should or could run, it's to really talk to him about the thing he cares the most about. Truly, as much as he cares about this country and this planet, [it's] his family. He's always been there for his kids and always seemed to me to have his priorities exactly where they should be because when you're in public service you can only give what you don't take away from yourself. Now, all of that said, maybe someday, maybe when the kids are older, who knows, he may decide to do it, and if he does, I'll be there in a heartbeat."

Bender took a "leave of absence" from school at age 12 to go and work on Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign. When asked if Bobby reminds him of his father, he pauses to think. "He honors his father," Bender says. "He honors his name with who he is, but he's different in that he's made his own path. Regardless of what pressures might have come for him to take a more traditional political path, this is who he is. So the answer is, he reminds me of his father in that he's true to himself. He's indefatigable--he won't stop. He'll go anywhere to try to fight for [the environment]. Something that is a similarity to his father, injustice makes him mad."

"Bobby Kennedy Jr. has paid his dues personally and politically," says John Stauber, founder of www.prwatch.org and the author of five books, including Weapons of Mass Deception (2003, Penguin). "He has the background, the smarts, the progressive orientation and the inclination, I think, to be an important new political leader in a country in crisis. Kennedy is refreshing, outspoken and charismatic and could become a rallying force for progressives. I hope he seizes the moment and contributes to a new political awakening that unites people around issues of peace, political reform, social justice, economic democracy and ecological sustainability. However, I think he needs to think bigger than he has been, and he probably needs to pull together around him a rainbow coalition of grassroots leaders. If he reached out to the grassroots and coalesced a coalition of activists for fundamental political change, things could get a lot more interesting at the national level, where national progressive leadership ranks are very thin."

When asked about political aspirations, Bobby prefers to remain vague. "No, I like what I'm doing," he says. "I love my life. I feel very lucky to be able to do something [where] I can feel like I'm being effective and feel like I'm doing something that's good for our country, good for Americans and my children and for the planet. I feel like it's a real privilege to do what I'm doing. I don't feel like I'm making a sacrifice--I'm just lucky to be able to do something I love."

If he had the power to change anything right now, Kennedy says he'd bring back the Fairness Doctrine to restore journalistic integrity in the media and initiate campaign finance reform. "I think those two things would help restore American democracy," he says.

When Bobby is at home, which is outside of New York City, he says he most enjoys being with his children and doing sports--from camping and fishing to basketball and tennis to skiing in the Catskills. As his parents did with their 11 children, this Kennedy family discusses politics every night at the dinner table. "Then we read The New York Times in the morning," Bobby says. "I just choose a couple of articles that they can handle because they're young."

And the family tradition of political ambition and commitment to service doesn't seem to be waning. "My son Conor made his first speech last night," Bobby says, smiling and very proud of his 11-year-old. "He went to a public hearing in Bedford, the town that

I live in. We're trying to get buffer zones around wetlands where you can't do construction, and we had a big hearing that was attended by large numbers of people, including the development community that's trying to block that initiative. I couldn't be there so I asked Conor to go for me, and he dressed up in a suit and went and read his speech, and he got a very good reception."

In the limo, Bobby returns calls from friends on his cell phone, offering to do this favor or that, saying he'll take care of a friend's pet for the weekend. "He is one of the most committed and compassionate people I've ever known," Bender says. "Obviously a lot of people will reach out to him because of his family, because of his name, but he never is standoffish. He really will show how he feels, which is a genuine caring for the people he comes in contact with. So that's a mark of character, and he does it when there are no cameras around. I think one of the things I've always admired and loved about Bob is that when you see him being interviewed, when you see him on television, when you see him giving a speech, it's the same guy 24/7."

At the core of Kennedy's conviction, his crusade to carry on the values and the fight of his father while making his name is own, is the instinctive belief that Americans have a moral obligation. "If you don't have an obligation to other members of your community, including future generations, then what's morality?" Bobby asks. "What does morality mean? Then there's no such thing as morality. Sin is an injury to relationships, and morality is fair dealing with relationships. It's the basis of the whole idea of community."

Published: December 01, 2005
Issue: Holiday 2005