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American Jeremiad

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Apprised of this line of thought, Kennedy put down his shake and offered a half-smile. It is one more aspect of the look: unapologetic bemusement at one’s privileged but unalterable existential positioning. A prince is a prince, after all. Who was I to tell Bobby Kennedy Jr. anything about being a Kennedy, especially today, which would have been his father’s 81st birthday and only two days short of the 43rd anniversary of his uncle’s death? He knew it all.

On the corridor walls outside Kennedy’s office at the Pace University Environmental Litigation Clinic is a mural depicting the history of the Hudson River. Designed by Kennedy and done up in a style reminiscent of the mystic realism of Thomas Cole’s Hudson River School, the mural also tracks developments in the modern-day environmental movement. In the middle is a photo of a smiling Newt Gingrich holding a cuddly leopard cub. It was the Contract With America that did much to roll back the environmental gains of the seventies and eighties, the mural explains.

“My favorite Newt shot,” Kennedy said. “A couple moments later, the cub attacked him. He needed stitches to close the wound.”

In 1983, when Kennedy first came to work with the Hudson River Fisherman Association—the legendary down-in-the-muck association of scientists, sportsmen, and commercial fishers that would morph into the less-mess-on-the-Topsider groups like the Riverkeepers—he did not arrive as a savior. He was serving 800 hours of community service for heroin possession.

In a chapter of his book The Riverkeepers, Kennedy refers to his decade-plus of drug use, a period of time that would include a stint as an assistant district attorney under Robert Morgenthau, as a “series of choices” made “after my father’s death … that caused me to devote less energy to pursuing the principles I was taught as a child.” That’s pretty much all that Kennedy, not given to public confession, is willing to reveal about “a dark period of my life” after which his younger brother David would die of an overdose.

“What do you want me to say?” Kennedy answers ruefully. “It was hideous. He was my best friend.”

With the HRFA then fresh from the fight against Con Edison’s proposed Storm King plant, teaming with Bobby “made sense for everyone,” says John Waldman, who spent twenty years at the Hudson River Foundation and now teaches biology at Queens College. “Bobby needed something to do, and there was a feeling that his name would add luster. Plus he had a lot of energy.” What happened next, Kennedy’s role in the bust-up at the Riverkeepers (successor to the HRFA) in 2000, remains an issue of contention to this day.

At the center of this particular cyclone is the redoubtable Robert Boyle, author of The Hudson River: A Natural and Unnatural History, the acknowledged master text on the topic. A no-nonsense naturalist of the Joe Mitchell–longshoreman school, Boyle founded the HRFA in a Croton, New York, living room as a force for “the ecological betterment of the watershed.” Reached at his home near Cooperstown, New York, where he is at work on a new version of his book, Boyle, now 78 but still taking no prisoners, says, “In the beginning, Kennedy was all right. Kind of quiet. But then he started throwing his weight around. Someone’s last name means nothing to me. We were in the middle of establishing a board with very impressive scientists, and he’s insisting on putting his people in. Probably kids he went to prep school with. One guy had been incarcerated—for smuggling birds! Why not just hire a ravenous wolf to watch the henhouse? He’s always saying I’m supposed to be his great teacher and mentor, that my book is the reason he fell in love with the river. Bullshit. He’s the reason I left the organization.”

Asked if he’d changed his mind about Kennedy in the ensuing years, Boyle says, “Not on your life … Peter Matthiesen called me, asked if I’d eat lunch with his son Alex, who’s the head of the Riverkeepers now. They wanted me back. I said, ‘Not if Kennedy’s there.’ ”

“I’ve always respected Bob Boyle. I always will,” says Kennedy. “We fished together for stripers and black bass. His book did make me fall in love with the river. One of the things that did, anyway.”

The fact is, Kennedy says, he was always an environmentalist of sorts, “from the time I was very little.” It was his mother’s family, the Skakels, whom Kennedy refers to as “a clan of unruly Republican outdoorsmen … crack shots and graceful athletes” (his uncle Jimmy once harpooned a whale from “the bow of a dory rowed by Portuguese fishermen off the Azores”) who nurtured his enduring bond with nature. At Hickory Hill, Kennedy assembled a menagerie of raccoons, mice, amphibians, reptiles, and “anything else I could trap or run down.” Each of his siblings had a horse, but Bobby Jr. believed his, a pinto named Geronimo, was the finest.


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