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American Jeremiad

“When I was 10, I decided to write a book about pollution,” Kennedy said, walking through Pace Law’s hallways on the way to teach his class. “A certain uncle of mine got me an interview with Stewart Udall, the secretary of the Interior. I brought a tape recorder and asked him a lot of questions.”

Kennedy stopped and looked out the window. “Look at this,” he said. Out in the yard was a falcon sitting on a T-shaped perch. “He’s a new one,” said Kennedy, who first became “obsessed” with flying falcons when he was 11, after reading T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which he describes as “one of those Camelot stories.”

“Wanna see him?” Kennedy asked, opening the ground-floor window and bounding through it. “He’s a kestrel,” he said, offering taxonomic info on the haughty-looking raptor. While not in the league with the fabulous peregrines, “this little guy” could still dive at 65 to 70 miles per hour, said Kennedy, a licensed master falconer who has a special empathy for birds of prey. “I know them and I think they know me.” Asked if he was a fan of Yeats’s famous “things fall apart” poem, The Second Coming, about the falcon that circles beyond the range of its trainer’s voice, Kennedy shook his head in seeming denial of the greatest of all Irish poets. “I can fly any bird,” he said. “Any bird.”

Kennedy has often said, “My adolescence went on until I was 29”—or until his dope bust brought him to the river. This doesn’t mean Bobby Jr., whose first question when hearing about an appointment is often “Do I have to dress up?,” has quite exorcised the scampish influence of one of his literary role models, Huckleberry Finn. In the entryway, there’s a large aquarium filled with grayish river fish. “I caught all those fish,” Kennedy reported. “Found those stones, too,” he added, pointing to the rocks at the bottom of the tank. It was as if he was so pleased to have pulled this really neat spider from under a rock—a way-neater spider than anyone else at the picnic found—and he wanted to show it to you, so you might be pleased too.

Likewise, there’s a bring-it-on, Our Gang feel to the way Kennedy runs the law clinic he founded along with Karl Coplan in 1987. Student teams find local polluters, gather evidence, file briefs, and start suing. Pace students (they bill $100 an hour, Bobby gets $600) have won more than 300 cases over the years.

Today, the class was working through a replay of the clinic’s greatest victory, the 2003 case of the Catskill Mountains Chapter of Trout Unlimited v. NYC, which resulted in a $5.7 million judgment against the city, the most ever granted under the Clean Water Act. Formerly one of the country’s premier trout-fishing creeks, the Esopus had been turned “from gin clear to yahoo brown” owing to illegal dumping of water through the Shandaken Tunnel, Kennedy told his students, noting that the city had just filed an appeal with the Supreme Court. This was a waste of everyone’s time, Kennedy said, “because they don’t have a prayer, and they know it. I hate suing the city, because most times they don’t even care if they win or lose, so where’s the fun in that?”

If John Kerry had won in 2004, Kennedy probably would have become head of the EPA. “John and I talked about that,” Kennedy said, which, of course, brings up what everyone asks Bobby Kennedy Jr. sooner or later: When you gonna run and what for?

The question hung in the air most pungently last year when Eliot Spitzer made clear his intention to be governor, setting up a potential “Page Six” dream feud for attorney general between Bobby Jr. and his erstwhile brother-in-law, Andrew Cuomo, a persona of deep non grata in post-Camelot since his divorce from Kennedy’s sister Kerry. “Andrew double-crossed my sister,” Kennedy said, heatedly. Asked to elaborate on Cuomo the younger and the Cuomo clan in general, Kennedy declined. “I’ve said enough.” Of his decision not to run, Kennedy said, “I asked myself, ‘Did I want to move to Albany, leave my wife and children, to be attorney general?’ The answer was no.”

With Spitzer, Chuck Schumer, and Hillary Clinton holding the only offices he professes to be interested in, Kennedy finds himself “pretty much boxed out in New York.” Even if Hillary was to become president, Spitzer, who would appoint her successor, is not likely to pick Kennedy, who has never held elective office. It is hard to tell whether Kennedy, who favors Hillary in 2008 (“Most of these people are two questions deep; she’s twenty questions deep”), is bothered by this. Although he’s a sterling orator, known to rouse audiences with declarations about how America is now a land of “socialism for the rich and brutal capitalism for the poor,” Kennedy can’t stand the sound of his own voice, an anomaly for a politician. He suffers from spasmodic dysphonia, a malady of the larynx that often strangles his speech, causing him to sound pinched and uncertain.