Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has risen to become a major figure in the vaccine resistance movement. Those close to him say it’s “heartbreaking.”

By Adam Nagourney

Kerry Kennedy remembers how much she admired her older brother Robert as they grew up in Hickory Hill, the family estate in McLean, Va. She still talks about how he took her along to ford streams, crawl through drainpipes and catch frogs and snakes, ignoring his friends who did not want a 6-year-old girl tagging behind on their outdoor adventures.

“He was an extraordinary older brother,” she said the other day. “He’s brilliant, he’s well read, he cares deeply, he is extremely charismatic. He has a childlike buoyancy and lightness to him. He’s a beautiful person in a million different ways.

“And then he has this.”

Nearly 60 years after Bobby took his sister along for the excursions into the woods, the son and namesake of Robert F. Kennedy, the New York senator, attorney general and Democratic presidential candidate assassinated on June 5, 1968, has become an unimaginably polarizing figure in this tight-knit political family.

Once a top environmental lawyer who led the charge to clean up the Hudson River in New York, the third eldest child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy has emerged as a leading voice in the campaign to discredit coronavirus vaccines and other measures being advanced by the Biden White House to battle a pandemic that was, near the end of February, killing close to 1,900 people a day.

“The minute they hand you that vaccine passport, every right that you have is transformed into a privilege contingent upon your obedience to arbitrary government dictates,” he told a cheering crowd at a rally against vaccine mandates in Washington last month. “It will make you a slave.”

Mr. Kennedy’s rise as the face of the vaccine resistance movement has tested as never before the solidarity of a family that has for decades remained resolute in the face of tragedy and scandal. It has rattled the Hollywood and entertainment circles that he inhabits, while showing how the vaccine debate is upending traditional political alliances.

And it has left the Kennedys and his friends anguished and mystified about the dramatic turn in the often troubled life of a man who was a pallbearer at his father’s funeral when he was 14, who emerged from drug addiction to become one of the leading environmentalists in the country and who is regarded as among the most politically gifted Kennedys of his generation.

Mr. Kennedy has effectively used his talent and one of the most prominent names in American political history as a platform for fueling resistance to vaccines that could save countless lives.

His conduct “undercuts 50 years of public health vaccine practice, and he’s done it in a way I’ve never see anyone else do it,” said Michael T. Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “He is among the most dangerous because of the credibility of who he is and what his family name has brought to this issue.”

Blake Fleetwood, a writer who calls Mr. Kennedy “an inspiration” and has been a friend and skiing companion since 1971, said he could not understand why Mr. Kennedy was “risking his whole life” of activism by “taking on this crusade.”

“Why is he blowing his whole life’s work?” he asked.

Mr. Kennedy, 68, began inveighing against vaccines well before the arrival of the coronavirus, contending that they cause autism — a notion that has been soundly rejected by medical experts. But the tenor of his attacks intensified with the arrival of Covid vaccinations and brought new scrutiny not only to Mr. Kennedy’s positions on vaccines, but to other unorthodox causes he has gravitated to over the years.

Mr. Kennedy now says Sirhan B. Sirhan did not kill Mr. Kennedy’s father and has urged California parole commissioners to free him. He has repeated a popular conspiracy theory that 5G high speed transmission towers are being installed across the nation “to harvest our data and control our behavior.”

In a best-selling new book, he claimed that Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, who is President Biden’s top medical adviser for the coronavirus pandemic, and Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, were in cahoots with the pharmaceutical industry to profiteer off dangerous vaccines.

He has amassed a significant following on social media, where he circulates what is often false information on the coronavirus and vaccines. Last year he was barred from Instagram, where he had 800,000 followers, for pushing misinformation in his attacks on the vaccine. His Facebook page, with more than 300,000 followers, remains online, as does his Twitter account, with over 405,000 followers.

Mr. Kennedy declined a request for an interview, saying he was busy in a trial about vaccine damages in Jackson, Tenn. He also said he thought The New York Times had not given a fair airing of his concerns about the vaccine and had ignored his book on Dr. Fauci, despite its brisk sales. But he responded to some questions by email, saying he was drawn into this issue when the mother of a child with autism brought stacks of studies purporting to show a link between vaccines and the condition to his Cape Cod home and stayed there until he reviewed them.

I realized the huge delta between the official narratives promoted by Pharma and public health regulators on one side and the published science I was then reading,” Mr. Kennedy wrote. He said he tried to raise his concerns with top federal health officials and that “those conversations made me angry enough that I got drawn into this battle.”

Five of his eight surviving siblings — two of his brothers have died — have publicly rebuked him over the past two years for his campaign against vaccines, a remarkable development in a prominent American family that tries to manage its problems in-house. To the public distress of his wife, the actress Cheryl Hines, Mr. Kennedy invoked Anne Frank, the young German-Dutch diarist who died in a Nazi prison camp, as he compared government measures for containing the pandemic with the Holocaust at that rally in Washington. He later apologized for that.

“Bobby’s lies and fear-mongering yesterday were both sickening and repulsive,” Kerry Kennedy wrote on Twitter about the brother she so admired after he invoked Frank. “I strongly condemn him for his hateful rhetoric.”

Christopher G. Kennedy, a brother, said he was startled by the invocation of Nazis. “I love my brother but could not disagree with him more,” he said in a statement. Three other siblings — Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Joseph P. Kennedy II in an essay in Politico in 2019 and Rory Kennedy in an email this month — have also criticized their brother for his attacks on vaccines.

Douglas Kennedy stopped short of rebuking his brother but made clear in an interview he has a different view of the vaccine. “I am vaccinated,” he said. “I got vaccinated as soon as I was able.”

From his earliest days growing up in Virginia, to his years at Harvard University, to his work as a co-founder of Waterkeeper Alliance, created in 1999 to battle water pollution, Mr. Kennedy has been known as someone with obsessive energy, passionate to the point of being exhausting. For nearly 40 years, he has made a mission of warning about mercury contamination — first from coal-powered plants and now as a preservative in some vaccines. Even his most prominent critics say they do not doubt his sincerity, even as he has become one of the most prominent spreaders of misinformation on vaccines.

Dr. Fauci said that at the instruction of the Trump White House, he spent an hour listening to Mr. Kennedy give a briefing on childhood vaccines at the National Institutes of Health. “As soon as the first slide went up, I raised my hand — I said, ‘Bobby, there’s no data,’” Dr. Fauci said in an interview. “He said, ‘I never get a chance to offer the facts, so I want to make a presentation, but I don’t want to be interrupted until I’m finished.’”

When it was over, Dr. Fauci walked Mr. Kennedy out of the conference room.

“I said, ‘Bobby, I’m sorry we didn’t come to any agreement here,’” he said. “‘Although I disagree factually with everything you are saying, I do understand and I respect that deep down you are really concerned about the safety of children.’ I said that in a very sincere way.”

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy, his uncle, in 1963, when Robert was 9, helped foster a modern culture of conspiracy theories. Now, many of the arguments that Mr. Kennedy has embraced — including that Dr. Fauci is part of a “historic coup d’état against Western democracy” — recall the theories of a secret assassin helping Lee Harvey Oswald from the grassy knoll in Dallas.

The case of Mr. Sirhan, 77, who has been in prison for more than 50 years, gave rise to another rupture in the Kennedy ranks. Six of his siblings broke with Mr. Kennedy in urging California to deny Mr. Sirhan parole. In January, Gov. Gavin Newsom overturned a recommendation from the parole board that Mr. Sirhan be set free.

Only Douglas Kennedy, a correspondent at Fox News, had joined his brother Bobby in urging that Mr. Sirhan be freed.

The divisions shaking the Kennedys come amid a decline in this once powerful American political dynasty. With Mr. Kennedy’s nephew, Joseph Kennedy III, giving up his seat in Congress last year, this is the first time there has not been a Kennedy in Congress since Edward M. Kennedy was elected senator from Massachusetts in 1962.

By design or not, Robert Kennedy has found a way to stay on the public stage. In the process, he has positioned himself on vaccines much closer to Republicans than to Democrats, a party that was personified for decades by his father and his uncles John and Ted. Mr. Kennedy met with then-President-elect Donald Trump to discuss their general concerns about vaccines a few weeks before Mr. Trump was sworn in.

The swerve in Mr. Kennedy’s career, from the environment to vaccines, is particularly startling because for many family members and other Kennedy associates, Robert Kennedy Jr. is the sibling who most recalls the level of charisma and political appeal of his late father.

Douglas Kennedy said his brother “probably has the most natural political talent of not only everybody in our family in this generation but anybody I have ever met. Most of the time he is motivated to use those talents for good purpose.”

Mr. Kennedy has lived under the shadow of trouble and tragedy since his father’s death. He struggled with heroin addiction and was arrested in South Dakota in 1983 for heroin possession. He enrolled in a treatment program and has been sober ever since, by his account; friends say he still tries to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on most days. He also goes to Mass almost every Sunday.

His second wife, Mary Richardson Kennedy, 52, hanged herself in a barn behind their home in Mount Kisco in Westchester County in 2012, after Mr. Kennedy had filed for divorce.

Mr. Kennedy said in an email that he was drawn to vaccines because of his work suing coal-burning plants emitting toxic mercury emissions linked to brain damage. “Women started attending my speeches — they were moms of intellectually disabled children who believed their kids were vaccine injured,” Mr. Kennedy said.

In 2005, he wrote an article, published simultaneously in Rolling Stone and Salon, claiming a link between thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative used in some vaccines, and childhood autism. Both news organizations subsequently withdrew the article as further fact-checking found some of the claims in the story false or tenuous.

Still, Jann Wenner, who was publisher of Rolling Stone at the time, said he admired Mr. Kennedy.

“He is kind of a daredevil,” Mr. Wenner said. “He takes chances, he takes it to the edge. He’s got this natural self-confidence.”

Mark Green, the former New York public advocate who worked with Mr. Kennedy on environmental issues, said that while Mr. Kennedy’s interests had changed, “one consistent thing from the ’70s to now is his self-confidence, his intensity, and sincerity.”

“I don’t think he worries much” about his vaccine stance marring his reputation, “because he believes in whatever he says,” said Mr. Green, who sought Mr. Kennedy’s support when he ran for mayor of New York as a Democrat in 2001.

Mr. Kennedy’s friends have urged him to move on to other issues. “Sometimes you want to shake him and say, ‘Jesus Christ, Bobby, pay attention to something else,’” said Mike Papantonio, a lawyer and talk show host who has tried cases with Mr. Kennedy. “But at the end of the day he’s committed to it. The jaws are locked.”

Kerry Kennedy said she continued to treasure the memories of growing up with Bobby, and will always admire her older brother.

“We have much more in common than our differences on vaccines, but on that subject we are diametrically opposed,” she said. “I can’t say enough how much I love Bobby. It’s so heartbreaking. It’s so tough.”

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