The rise of RFK Jr: The anti-vax hero ‘more dangerous’ than ever

Kennedy insists to The Independent he did not compare anyone to Adolf Hitler or Nazis, writes Andrew Buncombe

Thursday 27 January 2022 15:54
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<p>Robert F Kennedy’s father and uncle were assassinated</p>

Robert F Kennedy’s father and uncle were assassinated

In the spring of 2005, staff at the Natural Resources Defence Council, an environmental group, got word of an incoming storm.

It was not a storm in the usual sense, but a storm of looming controversy.

Robert F Kennedy Jr, the son of senator Robert F Kennedy and nephew of John F Kennedy, both of whom were assassinated, and who worked as a lawyer for the group, was set to publish an article in Rolling Stone.

In the now notorious – and long retracted – article, titled Deadly Immunity, Kennedy would repeat the false and debunked claim there was a link between thimerosal, a mercury compound used as a preservative in vaccines, and childhood autism.

Not only that, Kennedy, who up to that point was considered a respected environmentalist, would claim the government had “colluded with Big Pharma to hide the risks of thimerosal from the public”.

Gina Solomon, who worked as a senior scientist at the NRDC for 16 years, says the organisation was shown a draft of the article by Kennedy. Once she read it, she said she was immediately concerned that if it was published the NRDC needed to be ready to respond.

“I just remember some back and forth and realising that I was not going to convince him to change what he was saying,” she says, speaking from Oakland, California.

“I had tried to argue the science, and realised that there was not a way to persuade him that his facts were wrong.”

The panic triggered at the NRDC by the article, reported here for the first time, marked a turning point when people’s perception of Kennedy’s views would shift to one of mounting concern and anxiety.

For many years the NRDC sought to somehow juggle the benefits of being associated with such a high profile individual – not least for his fundraising ability – with with his increasingly extreme views.

Rolling Stone and the the news site Salon, which had both published the article at the same time, issued a series of clarifications, including five corrections, before it was later removed entirely.

“I regret we didn’t move on this more quickly, as evidence continued to emerge debunking the vaccines and autism link,” wrote then editor-in-chief Joan Walsh.

Robert F Kennedy Jr, pictured in 1974 in Kenya, was long a prominent and respected environmentalist

Yet, while Salon and Rolling Stone sought to address any harm done, Kennedy, now 68, did no such thing. Rather he doubled down on his assertions that there was a link between autism and vaccines.

In 2014, he published Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak: The Evidence Supporting the Immediate Removal of Mercury – a Known Neurotoxin – from Vaccines.

A blog post debunking the book, written by Deborah Bailin, then a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said it was filled with “misrepresentations of facts and slippery slope distortions of research that sway people – often those who are most earnest about seeking information – away from the science”.

In a section on its website about vaccine safety, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the US government’s preeminent health organisation, says of the claims of a link between vaccines and Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), that “thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative used to prevent germs (like bacteria and fungi) from contaminating multidose vials of vaccines”.

It adds: “Research shows thimerosal does not cause ASD … In fact a 2004 scientific review by the [National Academy of Medicine] concluded that ‘the evidence favours rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal–containing vaccines and autism’.”

As the pandemic took hold, and nations around the world sought to roll out vaccines to counter an illness that has globally killed at least 5.6m people, Kennedy broadened his aim, seeing in the vaccination programmes, and the calls for vaccine mandates, an effort to control people. (Despite the widespread availability of vaccines across the US, only 63 per cent of the US population is fully vaccinated, and vaccine sceptics can be found in the left and the right.)

Mr Kennedy spoke as thousands of demonstrators marched in Washington DC to protest vaccine mandates.

At a “health freedom” event in California last year, he told the crowd that Democrats had drunk the “Kool aid”.

“It is criminal medical malpractice to give a child one of these vaccines,” Kennedy claimed.

Kennedy, who suffers from spasmodic dysphonia, a voice disorder that triggers involuntary spasms in the muscles of the larynx, has attacked Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a senior adviser to Joe Biden.

In a book published last year by Simon and Schuster, The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health, he attacks both Fauci and Bill Gates, claiming they are operating a “cartel”.

A description of the book on the Simon and Schuster website says the book “details how Fauci, Gates, and their cohorts use their control of media outlets, scientific journals, key government and quasi-governmental agencies, global intelligence agencies, and influential scientists and physicians to flood the public with fearful propaganda about Covid-19 virulence and pathogenesis, and to muzzle debate and ruthlessly censor dissent”.

Last year Kennedy was named as one of the “Disinformation Dozen” by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, that said he and the group he leads, Children’s Health Defense, were among the top spreaders of false information about vaccines online. These 12 people were responsible for spreading up to 65 per cent of misinformation, the group said.

Kennedy has been banned from Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. But he still has a Twitter account with almost 400,000 followers.

How Robert F. Kennedy Jr. created an anti-vax behemoth

Recently, Kennedy triggered fresh outcry when he appeared to suggest attempts to impose vaccine mandates in the US were worse than what happened in Nazi Germany.

“Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps into Switzerland, you could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did,” he said, at an event where another speaker was Dr Robert Malone, also a prominent anti-vaccine campaigner whose recent comments on Joe Rogan’s podcast triggered calls for Spotify to drop the show.

“Today, the mechanisms are being put in place that will make it so none of us can run, and none of us can hide.”


The comments, for which he later apologised, resulted in outcry.

The Auschwitz Memorial said of Kennedy’s comments: “Exploiting the tragedy of people who suffered, were humiliated, tortured and murdered by the totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany – including children like Anne Frank – in a debate about vaccines and limitations during global pandemic is a sad symptom of moral and intellectual decay.”

His wife, Curb Your Enthusiasm actress Cheryl Hines, said in a statement: “My husband’s reference to Anne Frank at a mandate rally in DC was reprehensible and insensitive. The atrocities that millions endured during the Holocaust should never be compared to anyone or anything. His opinions are not a reflection of my own.”

In Curb Your Enthusiasm, Hines’s character, the wife of Larry David, who plays himself, is a long-suffering spouse who donates to various good causes, including the NRDC.

Despite vaccine roll out at least 870,000 Americans have died from Covid

In a brief interview, Kennedy tells The Independent he never sought to compare anyone to Hitler or the Nazis.

“I was making a point that modern technology leads to totalitarian regimes, and gave several examples. Which is a totally different point,” he says.

He said he did not have time to talk further but added: “I also apologised for making any reference to Anne Frank, but I never compared anyone to the Nazis.”

The NRDC did not respond to enquiries. Kennedy’s organisation did not respond to questions about his views on vaccines or claims he was spreading disinformation.

The comments from Hines, Kennedy’s third wife, are not the first time members of his family have sought to distance themselves from him.

In 2019, three high-profile relatives, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Joseph P Kennedy II and Maeve Kennedy McKean, wrote in an op-ed published by Politico, in which they said that that they loved Kennedy.

“But he is part of a misinformation campaign that's having heartbreaking — and deadly — consequences,” they wrote. “These tragic numbers are caused by the growing fear and mistrust of vaccines — amplified by internet doomsayers. Robert F Kennedy Jr — Joe and Kathleen’s brother and Maeve’s uncle — is part of this campaign to attack the institutions committed to reducing the tragedy of preventable infectious diseases.”

They added: “He has helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines.”

Several high-profile anti-vaccine campaigners claim the election of Donald Trump gave a boost to their cause, after he falsely claimed up to 20 times there was link between autism and vaccines.

Prior to his election victory, he met with four anti-vaccine campaigners, among them the British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who was struck off the register of the UK General Medical Council after publishing a highly influential and harmful article in the Lancet medical journal in February 1998 that falsely asserted there was a link between autism and the MMR vaccine that protects against measles, mumps, and rubella.

After his win, the White House also spoke to Kennedy, and for a period it appeared Trump was set to appoint him to head a commission to investigate vaccines alleged dangers. (There are countless studies already attesting to the safety and efficacy of vaccines.)

Experts say that in the same way Trump’s election helped the anti-vaccine movement, so too has the pandemic.

Among those Mr Kennedy has attacked are Dr Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser

Amy Pisani, CEO of the vaccine advocacy group Vaccinate Your Family, says Kennedy has become more dangerous than he was decade ago, because the situation had provided him with a new audience.

She says his organisation has reaped millions during the pandemic and this was another example of him using shock value for “self enrichment”.

“The rhetoric … is so dangerous because people who are new to this because of the pandemic, people who haven't been following the Kennedy saga all these years, who are not familiar with the fact the family does not agree with him, and that the rhetoric is completely false, I think for those people, they can be easily manipulated into thinking that this conspiracy theorist stuff is true,” she said.

She added: “That’s why I think it's so much more dangerous now than it was even 10 years ago.”

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