GELFAND’S WORLD - The name Kennedy has a special resonance to my generation because we witnessed the rise and death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as president and martyr. There has been a lot of second guessing about the JFK legacy since 1963, but I still can remember one of my classmates tearfully saying to the teacher on the day of his death, "How will we be able to explain that he was a great president?"
I don't know at this point whether Kennedy might have become that great president that we thought we saw in him. Lyndon Johnson carried through to win the most important legislation of the century, only to crumble as a war president in the Viet Nam disaster.
And all during that time and for the decades following, Democrats sought that most ephemeral of political gifts, that "man on a white horse" that was "another Kennedy." Mind you, it didn't need to be another Kennedy in the literal sense, it just needed to be somebody who could embody the JFK traits of charisma -- yes, that was the word that got bandied about -- and political ability and good looks.
The good looks were a lot of it, even if people didn't quite admit that this was a critical element, the John and Jackie look.
In the desperate moments near the end of LBJ's presidency, at a moment when a senator known as Gene McCarthy ran against Johnson in the Democratic primary, and then LBJ chose to announce his retirement and leave the presidency to somebody new, we saw a group of opportunists join the race. There was Hubert Humphrey and then there was Robert Kennedy, or Bobby as he was called.
RFK represented a triumphant liberalism coming from a man who had been something of a lawyerly thug, or perhaps a thugish lawyer, but someone who had become part of the government when, under JFK, it became the American Camelot. In the waning days of the Viet Nam War, RFK reached for the liberal ideals that seemed to have evaded him earlier in his career, and by winning the California primary, had essentially won the Democratic nomination. And on that same evening, he was murdered in plain sight of hundreds of people, becoming the newest Kennedy martyr and the next link in the conspiracy thinking that had characterized the aftermath of his brother's murder.
Since the death of JFK, there have been Kennedys -- Teddy and Bobby being the most politically viable -- who were considered as the next JFK. Who knows what Bobbie might have made of himself had he not been murdered on the night of his California Primary victory, but Teddy was never going to be anything close to what his brothers represented.
And now comes RFK Jr, another generation who, it turns out, is presently a Californian, and he profanes the memories and even the reality (such as it was) of the one President Kennedy.
RFK Jr had been an environmental attorney who is said to have done some good things in protecting the natural world. But back in 2005, he made a new name for himself by authoring an article, "Deadly Immunity," that was published in Rolling Stone magazine along with the online site Salon. It was a lengthy article that accused the U.S. government of covering up findings that implicated childhood vaccines as causing autism. I can remember reading the article at the time and being somewhat quizzical about it, but being neither an infectious disease expert, nor autism expert, nor epidemiologist, I didn't have the expertise to justify my skepticism.
But there was somebody with pretty good qualifications who went over the article carefully and responded, demolishing its essential illogic and conspiracy thinking spiked with a touch of paranoia.
David Gorski MD not only published an effective rebuttal to Kennedy's claims which you can see here, he was successful in stimulating Rolling stone to retract the article.
What was RFK Jr trying to claim? You have to remember that even then, there was a movement to blame autism on the use of the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine. It's been a long and ugly battle since then.
Let me give you one example. Thimerosal (which many of us will remember as the old antiseptic merthiolate) was used as a vaccine preservative at one time (and apparently is still in use in a few vaccines) because it prevents fungi and bacteria from growing in the vial of a multi-dose bottle. Thimerosal has been studied at length, and there is no credible evidence that injection of a vaccine with a small amount of thimerosal can induce autism.
I just noticed something -- in writing that last sentence above, I was using the standard sort of wording that scientists and government agencies use -- it is a true statement that evidence incriminating thimerosal was not found, but this is actually an incomplete statement. It should also be pointed out that studies were done rigorously and pretty exhaustively, and had there been any such action by thimerosal, they would have found it. In other words, we should be saying (and confidently) that thimerosal does not cause autism. I should also point out that in the modern day, that is exactly what professional organizations are saying. It is useful to refer to the debunked claims and go from there.
One other thing about thimerosal: In the face of public pressure, thimerosal was removed from most childhood vaccines, including MMR. If thimerosal were the cause of autism (or even just an increased level of autism), we would have expected that autism cases would drop after children were no longer being exposed to thimerosal at the previous dosage. But that's not what happened. Actually, diagnoses of autism, already on the rise, continued to rise. Rational people took this as evidence that, whatever the cause of autism, it wasn't thimerosal. But the anti-vaccine movement, having become fixated on innoculation (or "the jab" as the Brits call it) stayed fixated, even while contradicted by the facts.
And the anti-vaccine cult, as cults tend to do, simply looked for other possible explanations for their claim that vaccines lead to autism. They are still doing so, and RFK Jr is a leader in that cult.
The anti-vaccine cult has done a lot of damage more recently by raising doubts about the Covid-19 vaccines. The result has been thousands of deaths not only from people who refused to become vaccinated, but also in other people that those vaccine deniers infected. And RFK Jr shares in that guilt.
There is lots more about RFK Jr, but I will simply refer you to a recent article by Gorski which includes a summary and links, which you can find here.
RFK Jr is an anti-vaccine crank, in spite of his protestations to the contrary. And now he is doing what other grandstanders love to do, which is to announce his run for President of the United States. The problem for the rest of us, and for Democrats in particular, is that he wears that Kennedy name, so he may draw a few votes away from the eventual Democratic nominee. It is an ugly and evil act by a man who represents a peculiar pattern of thought that has been lethal to too many people. I'm hoping that the RFK Jr effect will be relatively minimal simply because it's been a long time since JFK was president, and because Democrats and a majority of independents are fearful of a repeat of the Trump presidency. But there will remain concern about a possible third party bid by Robert Kennedy Jr which could draw a few hundred thousand votes away from the Democratic nominee in what could be a close election.
Addendum: The latest Trump stories
In addition to his other legal entanglements, Donald Trump is facing a civil trial in New York in a few days over the claim that he raped a woman. The interesting part is that Trump's lawyers are preparing the groundwork for Trump not showing up at the trial. He of course has that right, but apparently the plaintiff can use his failure to appear as evidence suggesting his guilt. A Daily Kos story, which you can read here, points out that Trump is likely to lose at trial, and will be left with only the usual Trump procedure of claiming that the system was rigged against him. Any future opponent would be able to call Trump a convicted rapist. The term "convicted" might be called into question considering that this is a civil suit rather than a criminal case, but in the heat of a political campaign, Trump isn't going to be able to debate the semantic niceties with any effect.
Trump also suffered a different setback this week what with the settlement by Fox over its defamation of the voting machine company. Fox gets to play down the results, but it is another little bit of damage to the Big Lie that Trump actually won the 2020 election. Even Fox people admitted in sworn testimony (in their depositions) that they knew this was false.
I see all these accumulating results as the process of chipping away at Trump's credibility. There will always be a hard core of Trump supporters, but he only has to lose another five or ten percent to ensure a massive defeat in the 2024 general elections.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)