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American Jeremiad

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It isn’t unusual to hear that green politics is the perfect sort of activism for the advantaged classes, that rich people are incensed that the muck of the industrial world—often the same muck that made their families wealthy to begin with—has shredded even the most aristocratic of safety nets. There is, after all, a kind of grim democracy to global warming, the way it figures to screw up oceanfront property across the board, even in Hyannis. It has even been suggested that Robert Kennedy Jr. fights the good ecofight primarily to create a sustainable future for more generations of Kennedys, that the future of the planet and his famous family are one and the same to him.

“Who else would I be doing this for?” Kennedy asks with a laugh as he sits in a big easy chair beneath the skin of a 22-foot-long anaconda he trapped on a trip to South America mounted onto the ceiling of the large, generously windowed space he calls “my junk room.” Most people only get a junk drawer, but then again, most people don’t have the embalmed body of a tortoise they found as a kid while on safari in Africa with their cousin Bobby Shriver, a stack of ungulate skulls sitting atop a foosball table, and a souvenir plate with a hand-drawn picture of their father, uncle, and Pope John XXIII rising into heaven.

Of course it’s “personal,” Kennedy declares. Three of his six children have asthma, a condition he blames on air pollution. “Doctors tell me the mercury level in my blood is high just from eating fish. How could that not be personal?” Indeed, Kennedy seems to have merged with his cause. Bring up Rachel Carson, and he says, “My uncle’s Agriculture secretary attacked her. But Uncle Jack found out everything she said was true.” Talk about DDT, and he recalls how his brothers ran around aiming fumigators at each other “like we were Vic Morrow in the old Combat TV show.”

Then Bobby Jr. gets the look on his face again, that Kennedy look, albeit with a sharper, more playful edge than the other day in the diner. “What’s wrong with more generations of Kennedys?” he asks.

It’s a good question, especially since we’d just spent the past 45 minutes discussing the comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq and how he is certain his uncle Jack would have stopped the sixties war because “he was a military man and he knew what idiots the brass were and not to trust anything they said.” He is equally sure that had his father lived to become president in 1968, the war would have ended then. “Because he said he would and he wasn’t a liar.”

No, I have to admit. If not driving an SUV is going make the planet a more copasetic place for future generations of Jacobsons, then there might as well be more Kennedys, too. There is just too much history between us, too much investment in hope, requited and not. You might even drink to it, if Bobby Kennedy Jr. drank.

A while later, Kennedy and his son Conor take a walk in the woods, past the former chicken coop back of the main house. Kennedy had seen an owl out here and is hoping the bird is still around. Conor, a tall, blond kid wearing a video-gamer T-shirt saying MY THUMBS ARE NUMB, is talking about how he’d read Madeleine L’Engle’s classic fantasy A Wrinkle in Time in school, but he hadn’t liked it much. Described by his father as “a reflective kind of kid,” Conor says he prefers “history … you know, reality,” as we reach the small hill overlooking the family skating pond, the surface of which is gleaming in the moonlight.

During the summer, the Kennedys go waterskiing on the Hudson, as much as three times a week. “I take them out young,” Kennedy says. “They can stand up by the time they’re 4.” In winter, however, family activities usually center on the skating pond, where Conor and Finn first learned to play hockey. It is always fun, a little honest checking followed by hot chocolate.

Most years, the pond is almost frozen over by now. But now, with nighttime temperatures rarely falling below 40, there is no ice at all. Is this just one more inconvenience of global warming? Bobby Kennedy Jr. doesn’t answer. He just keeps looking through the naked trees to the pond below. “It’ll freeze. You’ll see. It’ll freeze.”


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