American Jeremiad

Photo: Jason Schmidt

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.”

Future attorney general Robert Kennedy with his son Bobby Jr. outside his Hickory Hill home.Photo: Paul Schutzer/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

“There is an ancient struggle between two separate philosophies, warring for control of the American soul. The first was set forth by John Winthrop in 1630, when he made the most important speech in American history, ‘A Model of Christian Charity,’ on the deck of the sloop Arbella, as the Puritans approached the New World. He said this land is being given to us by God not to satisfy carnal opportunities, or expand self-interest, but rather to create a shining city on a hill. This is the American ideal, working together, maintaining a spiritual mission, and creating communities for the future.

“The competing vision of America comes from the conquistador side of the national character and took hold with the gold rush of 1849. That’s when people began to regard the land as the source of private wealth, a place where you can get rich quick—the sort of game where whomever dies with the biggest pile wins.”

This was quite an answer, especially since amid talk of the dualities of Hamiltonian federalism and Jeffersonian democracy, as well as the rapacious freelance ethic of people like Billy the Kid, the names Kennedy and Bush were never mentioned. Not that a court genealogist was needed to tell the crony capitalists of Kennebunkport from the humble burghers of Hyannis. Were the Kennedys truly the Emersonian heirs of the Enlightenment and the Bushes nothing more than the mutant white-shoe offspring of Fred C. Dobbs? If the U.S. was truly a nation verging toward oligarchy, as Kennedy often intimates, weren’t all dynasties, from the Adamses to the Rockefellers, Du Ponts, and Keans, on down to Bobby Bonds, his jacked-up son, and half of Hollywood, worthy of suspicion? Besides, hadn’t both family patriarchs, bootlegger-ambassador Joe Kennedy and senator-banker-violator of the Trading With the Enemy Act Prescott Bush, been more than a tad soft on the Nazis?

These seemed reasonable rejoinders. But what was the point, with Bobby Jr. sitting there with the look on his white-lace-curtain face? Because, at the end of the day, past Camelot, Chappaquiddick, the so-called Curse, not to mention the drinking, dope overdoses, and sheer bad behavior (including his own 1983 heroin bust in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, in Rapid City, South Dakota), he wasn’t a nepotistic run-of-the-mill Taft or Trump—he was a Kennedy, a man with the inalienable right to pepper any sentence with phrases like “my uncle Jack,” “my uncle Teddy,” “my cousin Arnold,” as well as the inevitable topper: “My father.”

For any American of a certain vintage, recollection of where you were when you heard of the Kennedy murders is a shared communal history, not all that unlike the one John Winthrop invoked before his God-enabled Puritans descended from their hill city to wipe out the Indians. For better or worse, it is a legacy that cannot be shaken.

That much was clear at a recent screening of Bobby. Directed by Emilio Estevez, son of Martin Sheen and brother of Charlie, Bobby features fictional vignettes of the lives of central-casting types who just happen to be at the Ambassador Hotel when RFK (who appears only in newsreel footage) is killed, after the 1968 California presidential primary. Estevez, born in 1962, has said this was a “life” project for him, as his father always said RFK’s death signaled the moment “the music died.” Alas, Bobby is no Repo Man. Estevez, present at the screening for a Q&A, compared his film to “one of those Irwin Allen disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure where you meet the people and then 40 minutes in, the boat turns over.” His problem, Estevez said, was “my disaster doesn’t happen until the last ten minutes.”

Kennedy, 14 when his father was shot, has no plans to see Bobby. “It’s too painful, that California stuff,” he said. Nonetheless, “the family” had approved of the project, in part because the Sheens are “a wonderful family too.” Still, what stays with you about Bobby are the hats—the eBay-perfect hats and buttons worn by the actors that say, simply, kennedy. It would be easy to dismiss such product placement as a classic-rock Skinner box to send viewers down the blissful memory hole. However, watching Bobby following the marginal uplift of the Democratic congressional victory produced a less-expected self-manipulation. Seeing those actors, so few of them even alive on June 5, 1968, bearing their Kennedy electoral talismans is enough to make the beleaguered heart leap.

It’s sick how anytime the faintest zephyr of hope rises, against much history (like, for instance, getting into Vietnam), class antagonism, and sheer common sense, the cynic’s mind involuntarily turns to things Kennedy. It is a sucker’s game, but there it is.

Photo: Jason Schmidt

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.

“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.

“It came on when I was 43,” Kennedy said. “I used to have a really strong speaking voice. I’d talk to large rooms without a microphone.” Now he can’t even bear to listen to his Air America radio show, “Ring of Fire,” catching the program only once, “by accident, somewhere out in Alaska.”

Still, it makes you wonder exactly what kind of politician Bobby Jr., the most accomplished Kennedy of his generation, would be.

“I wouldn’t be a reliably liberal senator,” says Kennedy. “My father was never a liberal. He was a devout Catholic with an open mind.” He says Reagan and Bush have completely dekiltered terms like right and left to the point where he was happy to write a glowing introduction to the new edition of Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, not exactly a Kennedy kind of gig. “Goldwater hated those corporate types, thought they were antithetical to individual rights,” Kennedy said, claiming he’s “more conservative, in the traditional sense” than George Bush and his Gitmo crew ever were.

In the end, Kennedy says, his family tradition of public service tells him to “seek a place where I feel I can do the most good … Does that mean I’m not supposed to be satisfied unless I’m president? I don’t think so. I tell people my hero is Saint Francis, because he understood how God communicates to us most forcefully through nature and that makes it a sin to destroy those things. I’m not trying to pretend I’m not who I am. I understand the gift I’ve been given, being in this family. I also know the losses. Limitations you didn’t count on. It makes you want to concentrate on what you think is really important, what goes on beyond us, the long horizon.”

Bobby Kennedy Jr. is acting as a Kennedy man-of-myth is supposed to act. He’s charging up and down a field of play, leading the pack. But this is not the hallowed touch-football field of the famous compound where his father supposedly made up for being the scrawniest of the brood through sheer viciousness. This is a parent-student field-hockey match at Kennedy’s 11-year-old daughter Kyra’s school in Greenwich, and Bobby is sloshing across the muddy pitch swatting a ball with a little curved stick. After Kennedy scores his second goal, one of Kyra’s teammates asks her, “That your dad?” Kyra nods. Yeah, that’s him.

After the game, someone tells Kennedy, “You were dominant.”

“Well, I was playing against 9-year-old girls,” Kennedy returns, grass stains down the side of his chinos.

It is a clear winter’s day, and it would be hard to imagine a better place to spend the time than Robert Kennedy Jr.’s lovely home in Bedford, New York. Set on eleven wooded acres, with its own skating pond, the large Colonial house has long been in the family. On the walls are the framed autographs of 41 of the 42 men to serve as president of the United States.

“I’ve got them all except George Washington, which was stolen,” Kennedy says, still pissed about the theft. Showing true collector pride at snagging the scrawl of William Henry Harrison, in office only a month, Kennedy says his top two favorite presidents are, not unpredictably, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. JFK was a big champion of Grover Cleveland, for reasons Bobby Jr. has yet to understand.

He’s an ever-ready raconteur of the apocalyptic higher ground.

“This is my dictator wall,” Kennedy announces. Hanging there are the autographs of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Nixon’s signature appears at the bottom of a letter reading, “Dear Robert: I have just learned from my daughter Julie that you do not have my autograph in personal collection so I am enclosing this one … While your father and I were opponents I always considered him one of our ablest political leaders … Richard Nixon.”

The Kennedy home is a busy place. Kennedy and his wife, Mary Richardson, operate a seemingly unending shuttle, getting Kyra and her three brothers—Conor, 12; Finn, 9; and the 5-year-old Aiden Vieques (Kennedy was in jail for protesting Navy bombing on the island when the boy was born)—to school functions and ice-hockey games. Hockey is the winter game of choice in the Kennedy household. Both Conor, a reedy, cerebral stickhandler, and the boisterous Finn, often seen making his way around the house balancing on his hands, are budding stars, their father says. Holiday time was particularly hectic. Kennedy, who has two other children, Robert III and Kathleen, from his earlier marriage to Emily Black, is godfather to sixteen more. They all needed presents, too.

“When I was growing up, my brothers and sisters were my friends,” Kennedy says. “I didn’t have that much to do with people outside of our household. My kids don’t have that sort of life; things have changed.” Still, he keeps them close. A serious Catholic like his father, Kennedy takes his children to church every Sunday. Grace is always said before dinner. Before bed, the family prays together. Skulking like a voyeur, you know you are seeing a less ad hoc way of existence than the world you, or your children, grew up in. That rituals are being observed.

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.”

American Jeremiad