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American Jeremiad

A harrowing ride up the proverbial creek and into the beating, bleeding heart of RFK Jr.

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What’s the difference between the Kennedy family and the Bush family?” Hearing this, Bobby Kennedy Jr., son of Robert, nephew of John, stopped smacking the bottom of the ketchup bottle over his plate of fries, leaned back in his chair, and gave me the look.

We’d been talking, on and off, for days, the last half-hour or so at the North Castle Diner in White Plains, up the road from the Pace University Environmental Litigation Clinic, where Kennedy is the supervising attorney training “the youth of America to exercise their free-market rights to sue the pants off polluters so they don’t steal what’s left of the planet.” Kennedy, the third of his murdered father’s eleven children and a man in no short supply of facts-on-hand (Tom DeLay started as a pesticide salesman!), a familiar alpha-male handsomeness, Eddie Bauer chinos, and everything else you’d expect from someone of his pedigree, had been far from shy in dispensing his views on the current state of the republic.

For one thing, Kennedy, also the senior attorney for both the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Hudson Riverkeepers, doesn’t need Al Gore—whom he accuses of “bailing out” on the environmental movement in the 2000 campaign—to lecture him about global warming. Just a few unseasonably warm mornings before, buzzing up the Palisades Parkway in his dinged-up Toyota Prius with the pile of newspapers in the backseat, Kennedy, a world-class bird-watcher since growing up at Hickory Hill, the family manse outside of D.C., spied a black vulture. “Those birds never went north of Virginia … until now,” said Kennedy. “Soon we’ll be visiting ‘the wilderness formerly known as Glacier National Park.’

“This is how far we’ve come,” said Kennedy, consuming his turkey club and chocolate milk shake, his “usual” at the North Castle. “In thirteenth-century England, it was illegal to burn coal in London. People were executed for it. Public land was not to be despoiled. Today, in the Appalachians, some of the oldest geology on the planet, where Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett roamed, they mine coal by chopping off the tops of mountains with giant, 22-story-high machines called draglines. The earth, the real capital of human enterprise, is treated like a business in liquidation.

“George W. Bush is the worst environmental president in history, bar none,” declared Kennedy, whose most recent book is Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy. “When government controls business, that’s communism. When business controls government, that’s fascism, which is where Bush has brought us, to a corporate fascism that threatens our democracy in a way not seen since the robber barons of the Gilded Age,” said Kennedy, who wrote a long piece for Rolling Stone detailing how the Republicans subverted the 2004 presidential vote in Ohio and who recently suggested on his weekly Air America radio show that W. be impeached “as a necessary civics lesson for us all.”

He’s an ever-ready raconteur of the apocalyptic higher ground. You can wind him up, and there he goes. Want the skinny on the way the drug industry’s alleged reckless use of mercury in flu vaccinations might be linked to an increase of autism cases? An analysis of how “the emasculated stenographers of the press have served as a karaoke group for Karl Rove”? A treatise on how the right-wing Christian take on dominionism (in Genesis 1:26, God gives man dominion over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air, etc.) is one more cynical tool to justify big-oil landgrabs—and how it’s too bad about Ted Haggard because “environmentally, he was pretty progressive”? How about a Zagat-like critique on the Colorado River white-water rapids south of the Glen Canyon Dam? Just say the word.

Still, it wasn’t until asked to compare the Bush family with his own that Kennedy manifested the look—his own version of that elusive yet unmistakable expression that has loomed, Cheshire-like, over the popular mindscape for the past half-century. The look was present, in its size-you-up, boulevardier form, on JFK’s face during the debates, when he saw Nixon’s five-o’clock shadow, sensed the opponent’s nervousness, and knew, well, this was going to be a breeze. The look was there, too, in the searching gaze of RFK, especially in those last few months before his death, when the prosecutorial avidity of a man who once wiretapped Martin Luther King Jr. gave way to a near-beatific, big-tented vision of the future.

“What I see is this,” Kennedy began, leaning his six-foot-one frame over the Formica table. This lording over is tempered by an evenhanded invitation to mix it up, if you care to. In the North Castle, Kennedy’s liquid blue eyes appeared to be eerily fixed both on me, seated no more than two feet in front of him, and some other unseen point deep into the “cold distance” that Jimi Hendrix summons in his version of “All Along the Watchtower.”


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